"The Lady From The Sea" is a rarely produced Ibsen play, from the period when he was blending his powerful psychological insights and commitment to female equality with an equally impassioned symbolism. It was a great effort to wrestle theatre from the grip of simplistic, Nineteenth Century melodrama. It's the story of a woman who has to choose between a stifling marriage to a decent but uninteresting man, and her inexplicable passion for an old love, a recently returned stranger from the sea. Beyond that, it's a poetic vision of the ways in which great and elemental forces either define and empower our beings, or leave us defeated by their demands on our capacity for self-knowledge.
This production, directed by Kate Woriski, has a very uncertain first act, never really grounding itself sufficiently in the personal conflicts of Ellida Wangel, the play's main character, nor in the power of the symbolism. That symbolism is rather brilliantly achieved in John Conklin's inventive and daring set design, but it remains apart from the action, so we admire it rather than feeling it integrated into the drama.
In the second act, the personal drama of Ellida and her husband is far more effective, and in the play's two best scenes, we finally are able to lose ourselves in the reality of human beings in a human dilemma. Solid acting and some real conviction at last transcend layers of theatrical artifice, but it is all rather too late. In the end, the play seems too forced, and instead of a dynamic blending of the representational and the expressive, there's a sense of stiffness, of formality and unreality. Church clothes at a picnic.
Kristen Flanders plays Ellida with admirable strength and clarity. She's the sort of actress whose confidence is conveyed by the correctness of her every choice. The production has a vocal rhythm that seemed a bit tedious, but Ms. Flanders makes her inflections both rational and proportionate. Beyond that, I love the intelligence she brings to the character, and the way in which that intellect leads her to accept an emotional imperative that is stronger than her will.
What I did not get, and this is more of a directorial problem than an acting problem, was a sense of what it would mean for such a strong-willed woman to allow herself to succumb to this inchoate force. In other words, there was too much strength in the character to really accept that she was "washed out to sea" by emotion greater than her understanding. Perhaps that's why, in the scene with her husband, when she makes the intellectual argument for her own independence, the play seems most authentic.
Dr. Wangel (Philip Goodwin) is a man whose sense of convention and decorum simply would not allow the latitude his wife demanded. At least that would be the case in Nineteenth-Century Norway. In this production the man and wife have such honest and direct communication that it rather diffuses the conflict by making it current, but also by taking it out of its period context. Still, Mr. Goodwin's performance in this scene has a flesh and blood immediacy that stands out from the rest of the evening. In part, I think that's because the other characters are stylized to a degree that somewhat dehumanizes them, which, ironically, makes the couple's believability seem less real. Ultimately, Ellida seems less connected to her world than she needs to be in order for us to feel the full cost of her leaving it, and Dr. Wangel seems too connected to Ellida not to better understand her turmoil.
I admired the bright and convincing performance of Dawn Francis as the daughter Boletta. Her consideration of a relationship with the dilettante sculptor was the other really outstanding scene in the play. Clayton Corzatte is clever and amusing as Ballested, the Jack of All Trades, but he also seems to be in a bit of a stylistic clash with the rest of the production. The Stranger (Jason Cottle) never really projects the charisma to support Ellida's enchantment with him. The rest seems a bit overwhelmed by the physical production.
That set, which almost calls for a complete review in and of itself, is no small item to compete with. On the one side we have the town's boulevard, and directly opposite a massive, impenetrable expanse of silver, both ship and sea, in the same way that the sailor is both person and idea. On the playing area between are strewn hundreds of bits of pale green flotsam, the shifting and impermanent surface left by waves pulling toward the town and away from the town, but never at rest. With its skewed angles and forced perspective, it's a visually audacious and dramatically sophisticated invention, but it's also strong enough that one tends to lose the actors working in front of it, or kicking their way through it, or (in the case of the stranger) emerging literally from the center of it. This is an instance where the dance simply isn't up to the dancehall.
For a play in which we should feel and intuit even more than the text gives us to know, this production seems both overdone and under-achieved, intimate but not authentic, powerfully implied but not clearly expressed. There's a wealth of invention at work here, but in the end it all seems as ambiguous and inaccessible as Ellida's elusive freedom.
Return to Home Page