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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review

They cling to their dead a long time at Rosmersholm.
--- -Rebecca
If you ask me, miss, I should say it is the dead that cling to Rosmersholm a long time. . . one might almost say that they don't seem to be able to tear themselves away from those they have left behind. -- Mrs. Helseth
The free thinker, critic and novelist Rebecca West trained as an actress. She came away from a brief and unsuccessful career on stage with a lasting pseudonym inspired by the passionate strong-willed leading lady of Henrik Ibsen's Rosmersholm. As that pseudonym marked an end and a beginning for the former Cicely Isabel Fairfield, so Rosmersholm was also a marker in Ibsen's career. It was the last of his dramatic explorations of social themes and the first of the psychologically grounded plays that earned him the tag, "the Freud of the theatre", a tag that is justified when you consider that psychologists have had something of a field day using Ibsen's characters to propound their theories of human behavior. One of the most famous of these is a 1916 paper by "the father of psychoanalysis" analyzing Rebecca West, the brainchild of the "father of the modern theater."

Whether or not you agree with Freud that Rebecca fell victim to the Oedipus complex and an incestuous past, she is indeed a fascinating character, a woman who brings strength and purpose, at least transiently, into the life of the a weak and conflicted man. That man, John Rosmer, belongs to a Norwegian family whose men have always filled high places in Norway's rigid social structure.

Rebecca came to the family estate after the death of her guardian as a combination housekeeper and companion to Rosmer's neurotic wife Beata. She took charge of Rosmersholm's management and supported Rosmer's resignation from his post as pastor (after he lost his faith). In the year and a half since Beata threw herself off a bridge, Rebecca has cemented her position as John's soulmate in a partnership dedicated to working for the burgeoning movement for a freer, more ennobling society. In today's world Rebecca would probably start her own magazine or organization or run for political office and have her man without guilt. And yet Rosmersholm is not as hopelessly dated as all this may sound. We still have the smart women-foolish choices syndrome, as well as self-deception, guilt and self-righteous defenders of traditional values.

Ibsen, never a playwright to send you home laughing, is at his starkest in this rarely produced play. But it affords theater goers another opportunity to see his work in an unusually apt and intimate environment that, except for a few props, requires no scenic design. You see the Century Center's exquisitely restored, high-ceilinged Ballroom Theatre could well be the parlor of Rosmersholm and there's only the thinnest of "fourth walls" between its occupants, visitors and the audience. Except for the darkening of the room in-between scenes, the lights remain on which heightens the experience of being in the room with real people rather than watching actors.

The charm and immediacy of the setting does entail some problems for the actors. With seats on all sides of the room, they must turn and move so that no member of the audience feels ignored. However, bolstered by her previous turns at directing Ibsen under these circumstances, W.S. Compton ably navigates her players around this living room stage.

Ms. Compton has wisely made Rebecca twenty-five since Kelly Overton, especially seen at such close range, is obviously younger than the almost thirty called for in the original script. Unfortunately, this does not change the fact that Ms. Overton, though an attractive and promising actress, not only seems a size too small for her stately gown but also fails to fully inhabit her role. Instead of letting us see the gradation from a woman of ruthless determination to one transformed by self-doubt about her heritage and love, she seems all of a cloth throughout, more scrappy than powerful. She would be more at home as Rebecca at Manderley than Rebecca at Rosmersholm.

Dean Harrison is a fine, as the somewhat naive and befuddled John Rosmer. William Broderick as Rector Kroll is the very model of the schoolmaster who represents the old guard that is appalled by the social changes underfoot. While Rosmer is easily swayed, Broderick's Kroll is unwavering in his determination to counter the free thinking and liberal spirit that has usurped his authority in the school he runs as well as in his home. When he still feels that he can enlist John as editor of a paper to support his political beliefs, Kroll encourages Rebecca to take his sister's place as Mrs. Rosmer. Once he learns that Rosmer too is in the enemy camp, however, he sees Rebecca and John's relationship as illicit and contempible. Determined that guilt will keep them from realizing their dream of raising the human condition, Kroll proceeds to dig out everyone's deepest and darkest secrets (Rebecca's illegitimacy, the truth about the deranged Beata Rosmer's death). Ideally, Broderick would play Kroll with a touch less villainy so that we could sympathize with him as a man struggling for the survival of everything he sincerely cares about, but he is nevertheless impressive.

Tamara Daniel is just right as the omnipresent, devoted servant, Mrs. Helseth, who fills us in on many of the details about the darkness that overhangs Rosmersholm. In a way she is Ibsen's narrator and commentator, the one who gives voice to the metaphor about white horses" as an omen of death. When Rebecca implies that it was best that Beata never had children since John was "never meant to be surrounded by crying children" Mrs. Helseth omnisciently observes that ""Little children do not cry at Rosmersholm, Miss West . . .no in this house, little children have never been known to cry, as long as any one can remember." She further notes that these strangely barren of tears children also grow up without ever laughing." When Rebecca observes that this is true of most people in the area, Mrs. Helsveth rejoins with "People say it began at Rosmersholm, and I expect it spread like a sort of infection." Since Ibsen models his play on the Greek tragedies in which the most dramatic scenes often occur offstage, Mrs. Helseth is not only the one who prepares us for the ultimate tragedy, but also serves as its eyewitness reporter.

David Jones makes two brief but telling appearances as Rosmer's erstwhile tutor who arrives somewhat worse for wear (and drink). Bruce Barton is also effective as the editor of a liberal newspaper with a scandal in his background.

Despite the shortcoming I've cited, this is a most worthwhile addition to Century Center's presentation of Ibsen's full oeuvre, which has so far included his first six plays: Pillars of Society, A Doll's House, Enemy of the People, Ghosts (Our Review), The Wild Duck, and The Lady from the Sea. At $15 a ticket, it's also one of the best theater bargains around town.

Translation by Rolf Fielde
Directed by J. C. Compton
Cast: Bruce Edward Barton, William Broderick, Tamara Daniel, Dean Harrison, David Jones and Kelly Overton.
Lighting Design: Jason Cina
Costume Design: Sydney Maresca
Original music and Sound Design: John Littig
Running Time: 2 hours, including 10-minute intermission
Ballroom Theatre, Century Center, 111 E.15th St. (Park Av S./Irving Place) 982-6782.
2/24/01 -3/17/01; opens 2/24/01
Performances: Thu - Sat at 8pm; Sun at 3pm -- $15

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 2/21 performance
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