A Lie Agreed Upon

The Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre has opened for in-person performances with a provocative production of “A Lie Agreed Upon.” Pictured seated, from left: Fred Sullivan Jr. (Aslaksen), Sean McConaghy (Dr. Thomas Stockman). Background, from left: Nora Eschenheimer (Thea Hovstad), Jeff Ararat (Billings).

By KATHIE RALEIGH

Special to The Daily Times

WARWICK – The Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre has opened for in-person performances with a provocative production of “A Lie Agreed Upon.”

The Gamm’s artistic director, Tony Estrella, has reworked Norwegian Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play “An Enemy of the People.” His new iteration takes its title from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted in the play: “What is the truth but a lie agreed upon?”

In both “An Enemy” and “A Lie,” residents of a struggling small town are counting on the opening of a hot springs resort and spa to spark economic recovery. Unfortunately, Dr. Thomas Stockman, who actually had the idea for the spa in the first place, discovers that the springs are contaminated with bacteria.

“We’re just lucky we caught it now,” he says, believing that people will be relieved to have the facts and stop the opening before anyone gets sick and dies.

No spoiler alert necessary: That’s not how it goes.

In about two hours, the play explores the ways politics, economics and personal interests lead people to take sides in dealing with this public health issue. The environment and social justice are touched upon, and notably, there is an effort to discredit science. Particularly interesting is how a conspiracy theory originates about the doctor’s motivation.

The Gamm’s production, which Estrella also directs, gives life to this potentially dense material via a large cast representing divergent points of view. That allows the play to cover a lot of topical ground but less opportunity to develop characters in depth.

It’s left to the actors and director to flesh out the main characters through their performances, and Sean McConaghy does just that as Dr. Stockman. Not only does he defend the science behind his discovery with a passion that seems to burst forth naturally, he also expresses compassion through interactions with his young daughter, Greta.

Jonathan Higginbotham is appropriately wily as Peter Stockman, the town’s Mayor who, despite being the doctor’s brother, rationalizes downplaying the science in favor of supporting local business. Then there are journalists Thea Hovstag, played by a feisty Nora Eschenheimer, and Billings, played by Jeff Ararat, whose noble intentions are undermined by their need to attract subscribers.

Additional points of view are represented by actors playing anonymous “townspeople.” They don’t get many lines but they do make the most of representing diverse personalities.

Clearly, the issues Ibsen addressed in the 19th century still speak to us in the 21st, and that timelessness is reflected in the set and costumes, neither of which pins down a timeframe. Our attention, therefore, is on the several doors on set -- one never knows who is behind them; lighting that sometimes is cozy, other times harsh; and potent sound effects. The staging reminds us how live theater engages us so differently than television or Zoom. Nice to be back in person.

The Gamm is doing everything it can allow us to experience that engagement. Proof of vaccination or negative COVID tests is required, and masks are mandated for everyone. Policy specifics are listed at gammtheatre.org.

“A Lie Agreed Upon” continues through Oct. 24 at The Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd. Tickets are $49-$69 and are available by calling (401) 723-4266 or at gammtheatre.org; find information on discounts at gammtheatre.org/discounts.

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