In his preshow speech, Court Theatre artistic director Charles Newell asked the audience how many had ever seen Henrik Ibsen’s 1888 play The Lady from the Sea before. “We’re at Court Theatre and we’re doing an Ibsen play only four people have seen,” he responded. That alone helps make the case for this production, which was originally slated for spring of 2020.
The Lady from the Sea Through 3/27: Wed-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 2 and 7:30 PM, Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis, 773-753-4472, courttheatre.org, $37.50-$84.
In the forced COVID interval, Newell and director Shana Cooper reached out to playwright Richard Nelson for a new translation, and it’s one that blows some of the dust off earlier versions while maintaining the everyday poetry and insight of Ibsen’s yearning characters. None yearn more than Chaon Cross’s Ellida, the title character—a lighthouse keeper’s daughter whose brief long-ago romance with a murderous sailor still haunts her in her marriage to safe and kind Dr. Wangel (Gregory Linington). Mourning the death of an infant son, unable to fully connect with her stepdaughters—dutiful Bolette (Tanya Thai McBride) and rebellious Hilda (Angela Morris)—Cross’s Ellida is a restless, kinetic spirit who can only find temporary respite in her daily dips in the sea.
Her wounded quality seems to inspire the love of other men, including artist manque Lyngstrand (Will Mobley), whose sexist expectations of a wife are only partially balanced out by our knowledge that he’s not going to live long (c’mon, it’s Ibsen, somebody’s gotta have consumption or something), and Arnholm (Samuel Taylor), Bolette’s one-time tutor and an old friend of Ellida’s who has come to visit. But things really get dicey when Kelli Simpkins’s Stranger (spoiler alert: it’s the sailor!) reappears. Simpkins captures the menacing nature of the intruder simply by kicking the sand that covers the floor of Andrew Boyce’s set, whose large glass sliding panels at the back of the stage make us feel like we’re in a seaside version of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth house. The water lapping at the edge of the stage expands during the second act as Ellida comes closer to deciding between her current landlocked life and the promise of a new start.
Cooper’s staging uses stylized choreographed interludes by Erika Chong Schuch to suggest the way all the characters are in some way torn between duty and desire, past and future. Arms grab and entwine, bodies clump together and then strain forward to break from the group. While it can at times feel gimmicky, it also creates a rich visual contrast to the static arid world that Ellida sees around her. Unlike Nora in A Doll’s House, Ellida is ultimately able to choose her own fate with the blessings of her husband. Once she knows she has free will, the shadows of guilt and responsibility seem to fade, and she is no longer, as the painter Ballested (Dexter Zollicoffer) seems to suggest she has been, “a dying mermaid.”
Parts of the show still feel a bit becalmed at times, but Cross is a marvel throughout, as is McBride as Bolette, who has her own desires to build something other than being her father’s housekeeper, and Morris as wild child Hilda (the character reappears in Ibsen’s 1892 play The Master Builder). The Lady from the Sea is that rarity: an Ibsen play with a largely happy ending (or at least not an overtly tragic one). As Ibsen scholar and philosopher Lou Andreas-Salomé wrote of Ellida, “She stands in a world that is protective, a place of unity and conciliation.” Not a bad place to be.