By GWEN SHRIFT Staff Writer, Bucks County Courier Times
Laura C. Giknis, radiant in light comedy, is exhibiting a stonier edge as Petra, the determined daughter of the hero of Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” through May 31 at the Bristol Riverside Theatre.
Audiences will recall the masterful changes Giknis brought to the flighty Annelle in the Riverside’s “Steel Magnolias” in 2012, and as a pregnant teenager in 2010’s “Up.” Last season, she earned a Barrymore nomination for her portrayal of Audrey in “Little Shop of Horrors.”
Petra is a different creature entirely. In what Giknis calls “the most classical piece of literature that I’ve played onstage,” she is called on to depict a firebrand Norwegian teacher who is fiercely loyal to her father during a local crisis.
Laura C. Giknis and Mark Collmer
“An Enemy of the People” deals with the fallout of a revelation by Doctor Stockmann of potentially catastrophic conditions in his town’s main industry. Officials try to prevent him from going public about water contamination at the local health resort, known as “the baths.”
Stockmann, assailed on all sides, stands firm. Giknis’ character staunchly supports her father.
“She’s about 20, and it’s the late 1800s, and she’s a schoolteacher, and that’s already kind of revolutionary, and she completely backs her father. She’s very headstrong and doesn’t care what the community thinks,” says Giknis.
“The truth is, he has to fight for everybody else’s well-being … it’s very interesting to know that it’s more important to her to fight for what she believes in rather than take a back seat, that women would have done in that time period.
“She’s revolutionary, she’s bold, she’s a spitfire. … In that lecture scene, she’s been standing up and yelling right back at (her father’s opponents). She’s right up there on the front lines, saying what she feels. For sure, she’s a daddy’s girl. He can do no wrong.”
The Riverside is promoting the play’s evergreen theme of public interest versus economic issues, describing “An Enemy of the People” as “ringing with contemporary resonance as headlines debate the thin line between whistleblower and traitor.”
“It’s incredible how you see so much in today, and this was written so long ago, and there are so many issues that are exactly the same as today,” says Giknis.
“People hear ‘Ibsen,’ they may think it’s not for them. I think everyone should have an open mind, hearing how relevant such an old text is today. I definitely think (audiences) will leave with thoughts of how today is so similar.”
Giknis has immersed herself in contemporary work, such as the dark comedy “Bad Jews” at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3 and “Grease” on the theater’s main stage.
Petra’s petticoats and heavy wool skirts are a far cry from Sandy’s skintight black pants in “Grease,” much as the socially conscious theme of the Ibsen play stands apart from the youth-oriented musicals Giknis loves.
Part of Giknis’ appeal is her extremely youthful appearance. Though 29, she convincingly plays teenagers as young as 13 (in “Up,” this reviewer reported she “does not look old enough to drive.” She was 25.)
“I’m hoping to play a teenager for a while — I’m lucky,” she says. “I like contemporary musicals. I like a nice teen angst — it’s fierce and strong. I would love to do more of that.”
Bristol Riverside Theatre is staging “An Enemy of the People” partly for what it calls “community outreach,” which means incorporating amateurs into a professional production. The theater lists 41 participants in its community ensemble, some of whom have offstage tasks. Besides Giknis, eight professional actors have been cast, including Kevin Bergen as Doctor Stockmann, as well as Keith Baker, Mark Collmer, Brian Drillinger, Marc LeVasseur, Shamus Hunter McCarty, P. Brendan Mulvey and Sabrina Profitt.
Susan Atkinson and Amy Kaissar direct.