During a climactic scene of The Messenger, a world premiere now at Pioneer Theatre Company, my friend leaned over to me and whispered “this is like if doomscrolling were a play.” To our internet-addled brains, by this point the play only registered as TMI—too many opinions, too many people yelling, too many serious issues to pay attention to all at once.
To be fair, the dialogue by playwright Jeff Talbott is smarter than what you’d find on your average online echo chamber. Loosely adapting Henrik Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People for modern audiences, Talbott maintains the 19th century setting while reimagining the plot to comment on contemporary issues. The concept is promising—Ibsen’s tale of a whistleblower at odds with his community has plenty of details that feel sadly relevant to 2022. In its execution, though, The Messenger falls flat, as neither the issue-driven narrative nor the characters register.
In 1882, a small Norwegian town excitedly anticipates the opening of the nearby baths, which promise to save the town from financial ruin. As the official launch approaches, Dr. Therese Stockman (Ora Jones), who lives with her daughter Petra (Turna Mete), begins noticing a string of unexplained illnesses in town. Her preliminary research concludes that something in the baths is causing the health problems, which she fears could spread widely. She shares this information with her friend Kristine (Meredith Holzman), who wants to publish the findings in her newspaper. This news upsets Therese’s brother Peter (Mark H. Dold), the town mayor whose financial and political fortunes depend on the baths’ success. As both Therese and Peter double down on their opinions, a painful, personal ethical debate threatens both their relationship and the entire town.
In the play’s quieter scenes, the relationship between Dr. Stockman and Kristine is one of the play’s most affecting threads. The women bond over their mutual disappointment in men—relatable—and work to find their place as powerful women living in a restrictive society. Jones and Holzman have an easy chemistry on stage, and director Wes Grantom finds the most success with actors in these intimate, character-focused scenes.
These delicate moments, though, are drowned out by the play’s wandering focus on a whole laundry list of social issues. The Messenger addresses, among other things, public health crises, media bias, political corruption, class tension, gender dynamics, generational divide, political polarization and religious hypocrisy. In just a 90 minute running time, it’s impossible for all of these disparate topics to be addressed with nuance, and too often the characters get reduced to talking heads, making arguments that directly, if clumsily, address contemporary debates. The cast was clearly talented, but they were frequently left yelling to get their point across.
In all of these debates, Talbott refuses to take sides—in fact, one character often explicitly states that more of us need to meet in the middle and find common understanding. It’s an admirable impulse to let audiences come to their own conclusions. But in The Messenger, all of these attempts to add complexity muddles the social commentary, and audiences are left with an ever-growing pile of interesting ideas devoid of any clear point-of-view.
Though Talbott actually wrote The Messenger before the COVID-19 pandemic, the parallels between the health crisis on stage (which the characters ignore and politicize) and our world today are impossible to miss. This gives the play an added relevance, but it also, through the fault of no one in the creative team, makes it tougher to sit through. My reaction very well could be an “it’s not you, it’s me situation”—after two years of pandemic discourse and endless bad news, I admit my appetite for seeing the same thing on stage was low. In 2022, you don’t need to go to the theater for high-stakes ethical debates; you can just pick up your phone.