Critics used to seeing many familiar shows over and over again are usually glad of the opportunity to view a seldom produced work. Then again, sometimes during the evening it gradually becomes obvious just why it’s seldom produced.
Such is the case with the FSU/Asolo Conservatory’s current production of Henrik Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea. Now, it’s Ibsen, and no work of his should ever be dismissed lightly. And it’s certainly clear why the Conservatory would choose for its MFA students to learn to handle the psychological workings of an Ibsen drama.
That said, The Lady from the Sea, while bearing echoes of other, better-known Ibsen plays with its tortured heroine and sometimes cryptic dialogue, does not quite exert the hold of a Ghosts or A Doll’s House. There’s a fair amount of (to a modern audience, anyway) pretty obvious symbolism, and a great deal of discussion that circles around and around the same points; the play’s second act feels at times like a retread of its first. Overall, it can be heavy going.
Katie Cunninghan, Luke Bartholomew and Benjamin Boucvalt in The Lady from the Sea.
The action (if it can be called that) centers on a group of family and friends in a small Norwegian town by a fjord (definitely referenced by Rick Cannon’s set design of stone-looking pillars and such). Here dwell the good Dr. Wangel (Benjamin Boucvalt), his daughters, Bolette (Summer Dawn Wallace) and Hilde (Megan Delay), a young man with a life-threatening condition named Lungstran (Jon-Michael Miller) and the doctor’s unhappy wife, Ellida (Katie Cunningham), who grew up in a lighthouse and feels stifled by her physical location in her new home, as well as haunted by memories of an earlier involvement with a mysterious man of the sea.
Ellida is very clearly tied to the subject of a painting by a local artist (Geoff Knox), who refers to “a mermaid gasping for life.” She is no longer a wife to her husband or a stepmother to her daughters; her husband is so troubled he’s called in an old friend and former tutor to the family, Arnholm (Luke Bartholomew), to see if he can help comfort Ellida’s soul.
Fat chance of that. First Lungstran tells Ellida a strange tale of a seaman he once met who vowed to return to shore for his faithless wife; then a stranger (real or imagined?), played by Jake Staley, does indeed return for Ellida. Will she submit to the seemingly irresistible power he has over her? Will she be bound by her more conventional marriage vows? Or is there, somehow, a third choice?
There’s more to the play, including a secondary story involving the courtship of Bolette and Arnholm, but you get the picture. Most of the characters here have varying visions of freedom, but not all will attain it. Life in a cage is a familiar Ibsen trope, but this is probably not its most effective representation.
The cast, under the direction of Andrei Malaev-Babel, mostly navigates its way through the psychological drama with steady footing. And there are some moments that remind us of Ibsen at his best. But The Lady from the Sea never achieves the sort of tension suggested to us by the highly charged music that opens each act.
The Lady from the Sea continues at the Cook Theatre through March 13. For tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolsorep.org.