The Great Divide: Fighting Big Energy, now and then

Dinner at the Stockmanns: Louisa Frasconi, Heather Robison, Samuel Berston, Michaela Greeley, Scott McCloud, Scott Phillips. Photo: Pak Han

The process of Hydraulic Fracturing, or “fracking” — extracting gas or petroleum from rock layers by boring deeply underground and pumping water, sand and other chemicals into fissures — is making news headlines. It also forms the vortex of ‘The Great Divide” an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People” produced by Berkeley’s Shotgun Players. Below, Lou Fancher reviews the play, and Adam Tolbert interviews the play’s playwright, Adam Chanzit.

Playwright Henrik Ibsen’s Dr. Thomas Stockmann was an “enemy of the people”, a medical man who in 1882 discovered tainted water in his small Norwegian village’s popular medicinal baths. Transposed to the 21st century by playwright Adam Chanzit, a female doctor, hellbent on revealing water contamination in her Colorado town, bears the same mantle in Shotgun Players’ production of Chanzit’s “The Great Divide”, where truth’s bony finger is pointed at the energy industry.

Doctor Katherine Stockmann, played with impressive command by Heather Robison, is a medical vigilante. Prone to protect and protest in support of disadvantaged populations across the globe, she has mired herself and her family in trouble. Escape comes in the form of a fragile homecoming.

Stockmann’s brother, Peter (Scott Phillips), is mayor of the struggling Colorado town to which she returns with husband and two children in tow. The community has only recently been made flush by an infusion of cash from a large natural-gas company.

If there’s no army behind Stockmann, who battles journalists, town councilmembers, and her own maternal instincts after discovering contaminants in the town’s water, “The Great Divide” makes clear the vast array of forces behind the energy industry’s giants.

Whether facing the tight grin and even tighter grip Phillips applies to his role as the gas company’s enthused advocate or the elder in the Stockman family, the grandmother/mother portrayed elegantly and laced with delicious, lethal intent by Michaela Greeley, the great divide is heavily weighted against the good doctor’s efforts.

Dr. Stockmann speaks her mind at a town council meeting: Scott Phillips, Heather Robison. Photo: Pak Han

Director Mina Morita wastes no time raising the curtain on the play’s internal debate. In fact, if there’s a flaw in the production, it’s the force applied to pound home the message that fracking is releasing more than just petroleum. It’s not a simple thing to address weighty environmental hazards without wielding too heavy a hand, and Morita finds better balance in the play’s second half.

Here, the nonchalance of actor Joe Estlack’s Brent has simmered long enough to carry a stench. And Hovstad (Ryan Tasker), the journalist turned flip-flop-artist after his pursuit of the truth causes him to reverse positions, has stiff-necked his way through the arguments on either side, causing viewers to think, “Enough!” The explosion at the end of Act I is the perfect incendiary for the casts’ high voltage delivery and near total disintegration in Act II.

Martin Flynn’s graphic sets and the production’s sigh-themed sound design are used to great effect. As always with Shotgun Players, economy is the perfect editor and simple, straight-backed chairs become symbols, tools, adornments and even musical accompaniment.

“The Great Divide” ends without resolving the turmoil or answering the questions it raises. Appropriately, the shreds it leaves behind — a community divided, impoverished, floundering to recover— resonate more than a tidy bundling of the characters’ futures.

Interview with playwright Adam Chanzit by Adam Tolbert

Why were you drawn to this project?
Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People” is a compelling and problematic play for today’s audience. On the one hand, its central conflict of truth versus economic interest has become so familiar as to feel dated.  And yet it always seems prescient, relevant for each generation.

Having growing up in Denver, I was familiar with hydraulic fracturing and thought the situation could easily parallel “Enemy” but also complicate it in useful ways. In Ibsen, the tourists who visit the new spa in town would be the ones to suffer. In “The Great Divide”, the ill are local homeowners. Thus prosperity and illness are intertwined. The answers aren’t easy: industry transforms families, relationships, a whole structure of life – for better and worse.

It was also exciting to have the chance to work with Mina Morita and the Shotgun Players, a daring company that encourages large-cast, epic work.

How did you wrestle with Henrik Ibsen’s original text?
Ibsen and I had a rocky relationship that changed over the course of the process. At the outset, it was infatuation. I read the original over and over. I’d look at different translations and speak them out loud in my room.

Then when Shotgun did a reading of the earliest draft of “The Great Divide,” we all felt it remained too close to the Ibsen. The play yearned for a life of its own and so, gradually, I kept Ibsen farther and farther from my desk. I had to listen to the new characters, the new material trying to be born. Though Ibsen is classic, you just can’t be too reverent. You have to listen to what’s in front of you.

What were the most challenging aspects of this process?
The subject matter of hydraulic fracturing and the weight of “Enemy of the People” proved a real challenge. A lot of heavy (and multi-syllabic) information needs to come out to drive the plot. Plus in “Enemy”, the characters can feel like spokespeople for ideas. So crafting emotionally compelling and complex characters was trickier than usual. Ironically, with the stakes so high in the play, I also found it hard to use much of the dark and irreverent humor I enjoy writing.

Ultimately, while the intertwining of the personal and the political was the most challenging aspect, I believe the moments when they’re in perfect balance are thrilling to watch.

What were your favorite aspects of this process?
It’s been an honor and privilege to work with director Mina Morita. She’s been heavily involved from day one, suggesting ideas and giving insight. And the folks at Shotgun Players helped organize workshops so we could hear drafts with actors.

I also thoroughly enjoyed my trips to Western Colorado. I went during periods of boom as well as bust. I tried to go with an open mind, but I had preconceptions and most of them were bunk. During interviews, I could feel my own belief systems shifting.

What do you want audiences to come away with after seeing “The Great Divide”?
First, I hope it’s an entertaining, provocative, and emotionally resonant night of theater. I also hope audience sympathy shifts over the course of the show and perhaps lands for a moment on an unexpected character or a new train of thought.

“The Great Divide” runs through June 17. Visit Shotgun Players for more information.

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