Good looks aside, Ibsen play is flawed Theater review

February 22, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Seeing a chilly Henrik Ibsen play in snowy February might seem redundant. But "The Lady from the Sea" is atypical of the great Norwegian playwright. Not only is it set in a resort town in summer, it takes place outdoors.

Appropriate to such wide-open spaces, director Suzanne Pratt's staging at Theatre Hopkins uses one of the best abstract sets seen at this theater. The mostly bare stage has three levels, one of which is raked, and lighting designer Chuck Gehrman surmounts the set with a white screen that suffuses the light, approximating the glow of sunlight.

But "The Lady from the Sea" isn't merely brighter Ibsen. It's also gentler. There are even a few bursts of comedy.

Yet despite the bold set design and comic relief provided by some of the supporting actors, this gentle tone largely eludes Theatre Hopkins, whose production is frequently weighed down by melodrama.

Ellida Wangel, the lady of the title -- given the evening's most balanced performance by Cherie Weinert -- is a freedom-seeking Ibsen heroine, somewhat like Nora in his better-known "A Doll's House." But the freedom Ellida seeks isn't an effort to flee a constricting marriage; it is more a desire to embrace the unknown, in the form of the sea. A lighthouse keeper's daughter, Ellida feels hemmed in by the comfortable in-land home she shares with her husband and his two daughters from a previous marriage.

Before marrying Wangel, a kindly, older, provincial doctor -- earnestly, though at times ploddingly, played by Roland Bull -- Ellida gave her heart to a mysterious sailor. Although she broke off the relationship years ago, she continues to be haunted by this attractive, but threatening Stranger. His memory has created a silent rift in her marriage, and his sudden appearance throws that marriage into jeopardy.

The Stranger exists partly on a metaphorical level. Like the sea, he represents the central theme of free will. Therefore, in his brief appearances, it is essential that the Stranger conveys not only mystery, but also the allure he holds for Ellida. Tom Blair's Stranger, however, has a stolid quality that lacks romanticism and makes Ellida's decision too easy.

Part of the difficulty may be Eva LeGallienne's bland translation. And, Theatre Hopkins would have been wiser not to have chosen a play so magnificently revived by Center Stage only eight years ago.

Even so, a sense of impending doom hangs over several performances. Scott Knox brings an aura of melancholy to his portrayal of one of Ellida's former suitors, now in love with her elder step-daughter, Bolette; and Molly Moores' sensible, self-sacrificing Bolette tends to be self-aggrandizing as well.

In contrast, Elizabeth Bamford, a 10th-grader at Park School, imbues Bolette's snippy little sister with welcome exuberance.

One of the script's minor comic characters is a man who stutters whenever he says "acclimatize," a word he uses at every opportunity. The word symbolizes the struggle of the lady from the sea -- a free spirit attempting to adjust to security on land. It also characterizes the challenge of staging this unconventional Ibsen play. Though Theatre Hopkins' production has the correct airy look, its performance style is not fully acclimatized.

'The Lady from the Sea'

Where: Theatre Hopkins, Merrick Barn, Johns Hopkins University

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:15 p.m. Sundays and 7:30 p.m. March 10. Through March 17

Tickets: $10 and $12

Call: (410) 516-7159

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