The Lady From the Sea

Greasy Joan & Company

at the Chopin Theatre

The Lady From the Sea


at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts

In an 1887 speech, Henrik Ibsen startled his audience by announcing himself to be an optimist. His previous cheerless eviscerations of bourgeois norms in A Doll’s House, Ghosts, and The Wild Duck hardly suggested a sunny outlook. Still, in 1887 he insisted that the world was entering a new era when human discord would be resolved and people would find peace. A year and a day later, as if hell-bent on proving his point, Ibsen sent his publisher the final manuscript of The Lady From the Sea.

Seldom produced, it’s perhaps the only Ibsen play that can be characterized as a comedy, complete with happy ending. But it’s comedy of the Chekhovian sort, focused on trapped and unfulfilled characters. A group of people gathered at Dr. Wangel’s remote estate discover that cupid’s arrows have pierced all the wrong targets. Wangel is concerned about his high-strung wife, Ellida, and invites an old family friend, Dr. Arnholm, for a visit. Arnholm misunderstands the nature of his friend’s request and believes that Wangel’s teenage daughter Bolette–once Arnholm’s student–pines for him. But Bolette has no thoughts of romance with her slightly balding former tutor: she’s planning an escape from her backwater town. Still, she’s got eyes–sort of–for Hans, a consumptive young man who drapes himself over the furniture and calls himself an artist. Hans has eyes for anyone in a skirt–Ellida, Bolette, her younger sister Hilda–but is most taken with the idea of being adored.

Though the play is filled with star-crossed love affairs, Ellida’s case is the most extreme. Ten years earlier she met a mysterious sailor, the Stranger, who embodied all the seduction and terror of the ocean–where, she believes, she could live free. Before he sailed away, he “married them to the sea,” joining their rings on a chain and throwing them far into the deep. Ellida has done her best to forget him, but three years earlier her baby, fathered by Wangel, was born with the Stranger’s eyes. It turns out Hans once sailed with the Stranger, who most likely drowned when their ship went down. But perhaps he’ll come back from the dead to claim Ellida. Or perhaps he survived and is on the big American steamer traveling up the fjord as the play begins.

Despite all the symbolic sea imagery and Ellida’s mystical romance with a kind of sea demon, Ibsen was determined to rebel against the melodrama that dominated the theater of his day, as he’d been doing for more than ten years. A character so seduced by the ocean that she can hardly breathe when away from it may seem fanciful, but to Ibsen–who claimed to be a realist–she was representative of the national character. “People in Norway are spiritually under the domination of the sea,” he wrote to a friend. “I do not believe other people can fully understand it.” Ellida’s story is also a retooled version of Ibsen’s mother’s. As a young woman, she fled her native Denmark to escape an Icelandic poet whom she called “a wild, strange, elemental creature” with a “monstrous and demonic will.” She eventually married a widowed preacher 17 years her senior but wrote in later years that she had lived her life “oppressed by a feeling of want and longing.”

Pam Gems in her new translation of The Lady From the Sea makes a concerted effort to downplay its stagy side. She’s pruned much of Ibsen’s lengthy exposition, transformed his speechifying into poetic vernacular, and focused on the overwhelming stasis of these characters’ landlocked lives. In essence she’s aimed to turn Ibsen into Chekhov–an apt choice given both playwrights’ fascination with the dark undercurrents of genteel everyday life. The attempt may enrage purists, but the script is bright and eminently playable.

Greasy Joan & Company director Julieanne Ehre seizes every opportunity for Chekhovian realism–and comedy–that Gems hands her. Matthew York’s coolly spare set resembles a Soho art gallery, and Ehre creates a world of stolen glances and guarded language where everything unsaid speaks volumes. When Wangel tells the newly arrived Arnholm that Ellida is “all right…a little trouble with her nerves now and then,” we know she’s a wreck. When she finally appears, fresh from her daily swim, actress Elizabeth Rich reveals just a hint of anguish. When Ellida mentions to Arnholm that she spends her days sitting in the arbor while her stepdaughters sit on the veranda–“We can call across…when we have something to say”–she shows how uncommunicative and paralyzed the family is.

Ehre and her astute cast take care to capture the characters’ tenuous, ever changing relationships. Most want love, freedom, or both so desperately that fully voicing their desires would send everyone running. So they talk about nothing, deflecting inquiries into concerns of the heart and creating a placid minefield that’s both ridiculous and heartbreaking. Arnholm can’t manage even the tiniest hint at his infatuation with Bolette until the fifth act–whereupon he suddenly proposes marriage.

Unlike the others, Ellida can’t engage in the pleasantries of idle social life, instead plunging herself and her husband into a heroic confrontation with fate. This is where Gems’s translation gets into trouble: because she strips the rest of the text to its realistic essentials, Ellida’s story seems to come from another play. Her dilemma is the least instead of the most compelling, cluttered with symbolism and the supernatural. Rich’s performance is wonderful, even in the final, impossible moments when Ibsen concocts a happy ending for Ellida. But the universe of this character’s crises is not the same one the others inhabit.

Still, you’re unlikely to see a more satisfying production of Ibsen–or, more accurately, semi-Ibsen. Greasy Joan’s staging avoids the cold, polemical feel of the great Norwegian curmudgeon, instead exuding the warmth and liveliness of honest human portrayals.

ShawChicago director Robert Scogin seems to mistake The Lady From the Sea for the kind of melodrama Ibsen abhorred. Using Eleanor Marx-Aveling’s older, more traditional translation, his staged reading is a talky showcase of furrowed brows, tremulous voices, and campy neurasthenia.

Scogin slavishly adheres to certain conventions of reader’s theater–the actors face front at all times, for example, “seeing” one another out in the audience somewhere even though they’re standing side by side. Inexplicably, Adrianne Cury as Ellida stares up at every character she addresses as though she were trapped in a land of giants. And an odd mix of contemporary street clothes and period costume pieces results in a visual jumble.

But this staging’s biggest problems are emotionally overwrought performances by Cury and Tony Dobrowolski as Wangel. Cury begins on the brink of hysterical tears, leaving no room to develop the character of Ellida. And with his oracular style and affected diction, Dobrowolski would be more at home in a 1930s radio mystery. Rarely has Ibsen been so tedious; little wonder one of the actors spent his time “offstage,” sitting behind the others, reading a book he’d tucked into the pages of his script.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.