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A CurtainUp Review
The Lady from the Sea
In Philadelphia Premiere at the Lantern Theater Company is a historically interesting, lesser work from the pen of the mighty Henrik Ibsen. The Lady from the Sea, set in a remote town in Norway amid the wilds of the fjords and the sea, is perhaps more poetic and atmospheric than his two great plays that treat the constrained social position of women. It was written in 1888, thirteen years after the shocking A Doll's House, and less than two years before Hedda Gabler. These plays share themes of choice, marriage, responsibility and freedom.
The memory of a sailor haunts and "invades" Ellida, a doctor's second wife and reluctant member of a household with two step daughters. An old suitor, Arnholm, who was a tutor to step-daughter, Bolette enters the picture. Ailing Lyngstrand, a would-be sculptor, offers the view that a woman can achieve satisfaction by basking in the honor and respect of her man's work. Along with his social themes, Ibsen's writing had a strong psychological bent long before Freud started publishing in the 1890s, and while a light humor reminiscent of Chekhov flits across the top of the story, the unconscious pulls relentlessly beneath like undertow. Seemingly possessed by the sea with all its accompanying symbolism, and obsessed with the idea of freedom (but tellingly a freedom that must be given to her by her conventional husband), Ellida ultimately puts her husband and his solid land-locked values to the test against her longings and her dreams of being free.
This antique play, which still has its delights, is presented within an attractive set of painted trees and tall green painted hills descending down to the fjords. A more symbolist approach to the set might also have been an appropriate choice, since the Symbolist, later Expressionist painter Edvard Munch at one time designed sets for Ibsen's plays. In fact, this production is presented in association with an exhibition, Edvard Munch's Mermaid at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
It is not hard to understand why The Lady from the Sea is less often performed than Ibsen's great works that center on women. In this charming yet over-stuffed and underdeveloped play, so much symbolism, over-explication, and argument are fitted in that moods must change like windy days and characters come and go like people lost in a maze.
The play strains to present and then echo social themes. In the case of Bolette and Arnholm bathos is created when important life decisions are pressed into too-little stage time. Despite Ibsen's loading of matters psychological and societal into a somewhat frail play structure, and despite Gerry Bamman and Irene B. Berman's translation, which is at times stiff and formal and at other times so flippant that it's almost dismissive of the material (although this may be the case in the original Norwegian), Kathryn C. Nocero's direction is good enough to negotiate the delicate territory.
Lantern Theater Company has assembled a very interesting cast that is worthy of special note. Ellida is well played by the lovely Susan McKey from People's Light & Theatre Company, who was seen in Tooth And Claw at the Arden last year. Tim Moyer, who played a different sort of doctor in Blue/Orange at InterAct in the spring, is perfect as Dr. Wangel, Ellida's traditional, fair-minded husband. Jered McLenigan, a remarkable young actor who turned out a mean Ninja Hamlet recently in the Fringe, delivers a completely disarming performance as the foolish and fragile Lyngstrand. Janice Rowland handily manages the challenges of the role of daughter Bolette, and Marla Burkholder is a strange and perky daughter Hilde. Artistic Director Charles McMahon's seaman-- the Stranger-- is blunt and so deliberately unalluring that it hammers in the point that his character is more a concept than a real lover. The sturdy Ethan M. Cadoff as Arnholm and Brian McCann as Ballested round out the fine cast.
Although not Ibsen at his strongest, this attractive and dramatic old- fashioned work boasts appealing visuals and a truly marvelous cast.
Editor's Note: Readers might be interest in reading a review of another revival of this play -- Lady of the Sea--London.
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