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Ibsen's Still-Valid Views Of Pollution and Politics

Arthur Miller updates drama of persecuted scientist. TELEVISION: PREVIEW

AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE PBS, tonight, 9-11 p.m. Arthur Miller's adaptation of the Henrik Ibsen play, presented on `American Playhouse.' Starring John Glover and George Grizzard. Directed by Jack O'Brien. HERE'S the scenario: A small town has created a health spa at the local springs, and the townspeople are looking forward to prosperity and widespread recognition. A local doctor, however, suspects that outbreaks of rashes and stomach problems have been caused by faulty waste disposal nearby. But instead of acting on his valid findings that the waters are poisoned, the town turns against the doctor as ``an enemy of the people.''

This tale, which might have been written in the past decade, is actually a century-old stage play by Henrick Ibsen, now updated and Americanized by playwright Arthur Miller in 1950. Exploring a classic confrontation between incorruptible idealism and political expediency, the script has been fine-tuned by Miller for television.

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If you enjoy TV dramas that tackle monumental themes and make you think - perhaps even grow - give this production a chance. Though the odor of agitprop lingers throughout, ``Enemy'' becomes eminently watchable.

``We are in an awful bind these days, because we like to get our truth varnished and beautifully pomaded, in a way, from ... a politician or television newscaster...,'' says director Jack O'Brien, reached by phone at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre. ``But a lot of those who speak the truth may not fill those roles,'' he adds, referring to the play's central character, Dr. Stockman. O'Brien says he was initially attracted to the play by its ``powerful and painfully apt applicability to our own malevolent times.''

In the preface to his adaptation, Miller noted that Ibsen wrote ``Enemy'' primarily to express his outrage at a society that refused to recognize the truth: ``Those who warp the truth must inevitably be warped and corrupted themselves.''

In the filmed dialogue between Miller and O'Brien that follows the play, Miller draws parallels to today's politicians. ``For eight years, Reagan denied there was a problem known as acid rain,'' says the playwright. ``But the songbirds in my trees don't sing so much any more.''

Asked whether we've learned any lessons from our failure to face certain environmental truths, Miller answers, ``I don't think so.''

Lacking a moral center, the townspeople in ``Enemy'' flip-flop in the winds of convenience. Families, friends, politicians, and the local newspaper swirl in a sea of collective denial, tossed between fear about loss of livelihood and a too-weak desire to do the right thing.

One of the strengths of this ``Enemy'' is the acting in the lead roles. ``I get awfully tired of celebrating the English [actor],'' says O'Brien, touting ``Enemy's'' ``dazzling array of American actors people don't know.''

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Topping the list are John Glover as Dr. Stockman, and George Grizzard as his brother, the town's mayor. Both lend humanity and believability to roles that come perilously close at times to rhetorical posturing and overwrought moralizing. A sub-theme is a lifelong rivalry between these two opposites, one a model of singlemindedess, the other a master conformist.

Speaking of Miller's changes for television, O'Brien says, ``He certainly liberated [the script] from a very fusty dramatic and rhetoric style - kind of antique - to dialogue that is very contemporary, spare, and clear.''

Miller has moved the action from rural Scandinavia to Maine in about 1895. He has given a New England feel to the language, people, and pacing.

Asked whether serious theater like ``Enemy'' has an impact on today's viewers, O'Brien answers, ``I think we are whistling in the wind,'' because viewers willing to invest two demanding hours in watching the play are probably already conversant with the moral issues it raises.

``But you never know what is going to capture the public fancy,'' he adds. ``I'm perfectly willing to do the best job I can, [with] the prayer that it will move somebody.... It's a sad comment on our times that we don't celebrate the best stuff out there; we sort of bury it.''

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