Purely by coincidence, the Twin Cities is hosting two fine productions of classic plays about the difficulty of being a good person in the modern world. “The Good Person of Szechwan” is a mostly sunny look at that dilemma, presented by Ten Thousand Things, whereas the Guthrie Theater’s “An Enemy of the People” is a grimmer take.
British director Lyndsey Turner begins this adaptation like a magician who opens her act by showing us the inside of a top hat so we can see there’s nothing in it. Merle Hensel’s turntable-mounted set revolves in front of us, showing every inch of its three segments, which depict a party in the home of Tom and Kate Stockmann, their rooms tersely decorated with Design Within Reach-esque pieces that seem calculated to make you not want to sit on them.
The set continues reconfiguring itself throughout the play — sometimes in ways that barely seem possible — until, like that magician’s hat, the whole thing disappears into thin air. Which could be a metaphor for the vanishing illusions of Tom (Billy Carter), who learns at the beginning of the play that the public baths he supervises are not the healing balm advertised to tourists but a poisonous stew.
“An Enemy of the People” finds him trying to make this discovery public with the help of a newspaper reporter (Mo Perry) and editor (J.C. Cutler) until, isolated in a spotlight as the play closes, he finally realizes he is alone in his fight.
Written in 1882, the original “An Enemy of the People” is a problematic play, given some of the troubling ideas Henrik Ibsen expressed in it, but adapter Brad Birch’s pared-down, bitterly amusing take is like a radically rethought cover of a song such as Club Nouveau’s “Lean on Me” or Tortoise and Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s “Daniel”: The framework is there, but it accommodates lots of new stuff, too.
On opening night, the audience was all over a scene in which two characters debated the existence of alternative “truths”: “Your facts are not the only facts, Tom,” says Stockmann’s brother, Peter (“Desperate Housewives” star Ricardo Chavira), who is the town’s mayor and wants the polluted baths to stay open. Didn’t Kellyanne Conway just say that on the news?
Climate change also factors into Birch’s adaptation, as does the idea that good and bad are not as black and white as Tom would like them to be. His wife (Sarah Agnew), who seems to be a Lady Macbeth-like figure in the early going, reappears at the end of the play to caution Tom that he may be trying to do good but that he is doing it badly. Agnew’s passion brings a late note of humanity to what is otherwise a chilly, intellectual “Enemy of the People.”
Underscored throughout by an industrial thrum, this production may be, above all, a critique of privilege. Whether they’re liberal or conservative, its characters — wealthy, educated and seemingly compassionless — debate what to do about the baths, but there’s barely a mention of the eventual victims, who will wade into the healing waters and leave with damage to their internal organs. The talk of poisoned water is at a theoretical remove, because the decisions are being made by people who won’t really be affected by them. Oh, and for what it’s worth, the mayor of Flint, Mich., says some homes there still don’t have clean water.