Touchstone Theatre

The conflict between the individual’s duty to others and his duty to himself is at the heart of virtually all of Henrik Ibsen’s plays, with sympathy usually falling to !he hero who refuses to surrender to the corrupt mediocrity around him, who sacrifices personal security for the sake of a higher morality. But this youthfully romantic stance can easily give way to a selfish egotism as life denying as the society it deplores–a possibility conceded in Ibsen’s later plays, including The Wild Duck, in which the central question is how much of an individual one may destroy in order to save him.

The head of the Werle family is a prosperous and well-respected businessman, but 15 years earlier he and his partner Ekdal were tried for illegally harvesting government-owned timber. Werle was acquitted, but Ekdal went to prison and his reputation and then his health were ruined. There was also the matter of Gina Hansen, the Werles’ housekeeper who left under suspicion of having been Werle’s mistress after, or perhaps before, the death of Mrs. Werle. Since Ekdal’s release from prison Werle has tried to make amends–overpaying Ekdal for odd jobs, setting up his son Hjalmer in business as a society photographer, even contriving to have Hjalmer marry Gina. She now manages her infantile husband, who has an exaggerated sense of his own worth, and the family business–assisted by an occasional covert subsidy from Werle, who may or may not be the father of her daughter Hedvig.

At the time of the play, those who have suffered most have put past scandals behind them–except Werle’s embittered son, Gregers. Unable to tolerate the hypocrisy upon which the status quo is based–particularly after learning that his father intends to marry his current housekeeper, the practical widow Mrs. Sorby–Gregers reveals to Hjalmer the family secrets, naively thinking that the truth will somehow free them. Instead it brings only unhappiness and destruction.

For this production, a premiere of a new translation by Inga Stina Ewbank and Sir Peter Hall, Touchstone director Ina Marlowe has chosen an intensely humanistic interpretation of a story that could easily degenerate into melodramatic posturing. After a delightful opening scene employing a dozen of Chicago’s most venerable character actors, playing VIP guests and looking like a flock of avuncular penguins, the play concentrates on the domestic strife within the two families, with the efficient Gina (superbly played by Melinda Moonahan) and the devoted Hedvig (an auspicious debut by Amy E. Warren) loyally supporting Hjalmer’s inconsiderate, occasionally hurtful dreams of personal glory. Kendall Marlowe infuses this unsympathetic role with just the right balance of innocence and petulance, making his character not a cruel tyrant but only a man accustomed to being coddled by adoring women. The patrician Nathan Rankin provides the holier-than-thou Gregers with enough sincerity to temper his adolescent righteousness and keep him human.

Other memorable performances include those of John Reinhardt as the manipulative Werle, Larry Hart as an unusually animated Ekdal, LaDonna Tittle as the capable Mrs. Sorby, Glenn Fahlstrom as the itinerant parson Molvik, and Nick Polus in a subtle portrayal of Dr. Relling, who diagnoses Hjalmer’s unctuousness and Gregers’s “hyperrighteous fever” with the insight of a prophet.

Daniel Crump’s set overcomes the difficulties presented by the shallow stage at Touchstone’s new quarters in the former Steppenwolf playhouse, though his extensive use of draperies tends to make the Ekdal home resemble a tent more than a house. Patricia Hart’s costumes and Janina Edwards’s properties demonstrate outstanding period research.

Touchstone’s production of a play written in 1884 reveals personalities and social dilemmas clearly recognizable today. The debate over what constitutes a healthy family life goes on, as does the injury inflicted by those who would apply an absolute moral code to complex human relationships.