Steppenwolf Theatre Company
It’s undeniable that there are “lost” works best left wandering in the literary wilderness–particularly plays. A script that might have seemed vibrant in its own era can feel like a living wax museum when presented to contemporary audiences.
But with this intelligent and moving production, director Tina Landau makes an elegant case for resurrecting German playwright Elsa Bernstein. True, this English-language world premiere, translated by Curt Columbus and Landau, of Bernstein’s 1908 drama isn’t quite a masterpiece; some scenes are repetitive, and some dramatic contrivances groan under their own symbolic weight. But the feminist Maria Arndt is an intriguing complement to the groundbreaking dramas of Ibsen and Strindberg, succeeding where those works fall short–in realizing the seemingly irresolvable complexities facing a woman caught between her loving duty to others (particularly her children) and her desire to express her own smothered passions. Molly Regan’s dignified, luminous performance in the title role helps lift the play over some of its soapier passages.
What makes Bernstein’s drama unique even today is that its central relationship is not an adult love affair but Maria’s enduring love for her teenage daughter, Gemma. Children–particularly female children–don’t figure this prominently in Ibsen’s major works (with the exception of Hedvig in The Wild Duck). In fact Ingmar Bergman did away with the juvenile characters altogether in Nora, his stage adaptation of A Doll’s House, perhaps an acknowledgment that they’re more set decoration than three-dimensional beings.
Maria, married to a successful sculptor, has left their home in Florence–partly to get her lovely daughter out of reach of horny Italian boys and partly to escape her loveless marriage. She’s determined that Gemma should develop her mind and spirit before surrendering to love. Their home in a university town in southern Germany is tranquil and bookish. Set designer John Lee Beatty uses classical motifs and a soft palette of green and white to suggest the “hushed olive grove around a temple” described in Bernstein’s script–and a wild, lush Klimt-like backdrop of flowers and shrubs to hint at the unruly world of the heart, which invades this retreat.
Though Gemma rhapsodizes that the Arndts are “the perfect family, the Holy Family,” it’s painfully apparent that Maria is unhappy. When a former suitor turns up, she must confront her sexuality even as she tries to keep her daughter from plunging into an affair with the attractive boy next door. In a scene suffused with tenderness, Maria comforts and encourages her conflicted daughter, urging her to put off love until she’s older and more self-assured. “A good life is hard to achieve. But it won’t leave you feeling worthless,” she maintains with quiet certitude.
The irony–heavily underscored by Bernstein with a lot of 19th-century-style symbolism–is that Maria herself is unable to resist the blandishments of world-traveling doctor Gerhardt Claussner. Christopher Innvar’s performance as Maria’s presumably dashing suitor is rather stiff, but that may be the point: in her limited experience–she married while still a teenager–a strutting self-involved fellow with a gift of gab could easily seem quite the gent.
In one of their first encounters, the doctor points out a Greek relief of a figure holding a torch and wonders whether it’s meant to represent Eros or Thanatos. Indeed, in Maria’s world, love and death are linked. In her mind, giving in to Claussner’s demands and her own yearnings thrusts her into a situation that can be resolved only by self-sacrifice. This is the play’s least believable aspect, in part because in Regan’s portrayal Maria is so regal and assured and her love for Gemma so great. But to Landau’s immense credit, she doesn’t shy away from the inherent melodrama, recognizing that Maria Arndt is a play of its time. Rather than try to shoehorn it into a contemporary sensibility, she honors its differences.
And despite the melodrama, Maria Arndt has a delightful sense of fun, often at the expense of the male characters. The barely disguised competition between Gemma and Claussner over Maria is an occasional source of humor; at one point Gemma says witheringly of his increased confidence, “He seems taller than he used to be.” Handsome but self-involved Otto (Brad Eric Johnson), the object of Gemma’s affections, pouts about her bookworm tendencies: “I hate those books. They take you away from me.” His father, Von Tucher, criticizes Maria’s intellectuality (“I see a beautiful woman, yet you talk like a man”) but scolds his pinched, repressed daughter, Amanda (Brett Korn), for being unable to talk about her studies coherently–in his eyes, her tangents are proof of women’s moral weakness. Sadly, this is the area of Bernstein’s play that’s most resonant today: by and large we’ve accommodated women’s sexuality, but female intelligence is still often suspect and threatening. (Bernstein at first wrote under the pseudonym “Ernst Rosmer” but was quickly outed as a woman–and her style praised as “almost masculine.”)
Greta Sidwell Honold’s performance as Gemma deepens over the course of the play. Her breathy child-woman characterization early on can be downright irritating, but eventually she earns her place as an adult, picking up the torch her mother drops. And Bradley Armacost’s Babbitt-like Von Tucher shows a surprisingly vulnerable side–his late-night visit to Maria, when he despairs of being an adequate father and husband, allows us to see that gender straitjackets affect men as well as women.
Landau’s direction throughout is precise and lively. A dumb show at the beginning of the second act–stony housekeeper Agata (Marilynn Bogetich) dismisses a pregnant maid–provides a class-based counterpoint to Maria’s own impending humiliation. The changing of the literal and emotional seasons is represented by a shifting array of roses and autumn leaves, and lighting designer Scott Zielinski fleshes out the light and dark aspects of Maria’s domestic life with subtle but striking effectiveness, particularly in the wrenching final tableau.
In the hands of less talented and sensitive artists, Bernstein’s play might have seemed a fusty artifact–or, worse, its production might have seemed an overblown, self-important bid for recognition of a lost classic. But Landau and Columbus make no apologies for the play’s age, no outsize claims for its importance. More contrived and heavy-handed than A Doll’s House, it’s not as great a work. But then several Ibsen plays don’t meet that standard, and no one holds it against him.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.