As the Court Theater begins production of Henrik Ibsen’s rarely produced play ‘The Lady from the Sea’, director Shana Cooper and her design team deliver one of the most exquisite images you will see on stage. Behind a set of sliding glass doors, actress Chaon Cross is seen floating sideways as if she were a sea creature, a mermaid. His movement is fluid, his body relaxed. It is a vision of someone at peace with his surroundings. It is a most seductive illusion, a brief but memorable moment of theatrical magic.
The character is Ellida, the main character, a woman who “belongs” to the sea even when she lives on land. In our own idiomatic terms, she’s a fish out of water.
Ellida grew up by the sea, in a hard-to-reach lighthouse where suitors were few or non-existent. But after the very respectable Dr. Wangel (Gregory Linington) lost his first wife, he proposed to Ellida and she accepted, moving to live with him and his two daughters in a Norwegian fjord, which can be thought of for its majestic cliffs. , but which, for Ellida, is defined by polluted water and an obstructed view of the sea beyond. Was the nature of her choice to marry Wangel and live this different life free or did she simply have no other choice? – will drive the decision she has to make in the game between staying and leaving.
“The Lady of the Sea”
“The Lady of the Sea” is full of metaphors and verbal images. This is Ibsen in his most symbolic mode, but that doesn’t mean he’s completely detached from the other qualities of his writing, his philosophical bent or his often social and political realism. Like other much more famous works such as “A Doll’s House” and “Hedda Gabler” (the next piece after this in Ibsen’s canon), “The Lady from the Sea” considers free will in relation to to social expectations, and in particular the nature of marriage. Like plays such as “The Master Builder” (which shares a character with this play) and “When We Dead Awaken,” the dramatic events of “The Lady from the Sea” have a basis in reality but also, perhaps primarily, feel allegorical.
Shana Cooper, a nationally produced director directing her first major show in Chicago, delves into the abstract, the raw aspirations of the life that is not and the trappings of the life that is. She adds sequences of seductive choreography by Erica Chong Shuch, materializing a competition between fluidity and sharp edges. The movements are repeated several times, until they finally fit together in the climactic scene. Meanwhile, set designer Andrew Boyce gradually brings more water into the beach-like play space, depicting not only the sea but also the underlying temptations of the tides.
Cooper also emphasizes the work’s humor, aided by a new translation by playwright Richard Nelson, a new contribution since that same show was closed ahead of its first preview in March 2020. As a hands-on painter while Ballested, Dexter Zollicoffer manages to make Ibsen’s dialogue sound like it has punchlines, which is quite surprising. As visitors and suitors, Will Mobley and Samuel Taylor effectively harness the comic in male selfishness; it’s a play where nothing attracts a man more than a distant young girl who needs to be saved. And like the Wangel girls, Tania Thai McBride as Bolette strikes the right balance between taking men seriously and not doing it, while Angela Morris plays a kind of original mean girl to Hilda, fascinated by the pushing men dangerously beyond their physical limits. .
And Cross is bright like Ellida, so restless in her maladjusted life.
But for me, Cooper is a bit behind with Wangel. Linington’s care and effort to understand prove abstract when he is the force of logic and reality. And Cooper makes an ultra-bold choice with a character so mysterious he’s nameless. The Stranger, written as a bearded man but played here by a non-sexist Kelli Simpkins, first presents as a ghostly figure, behind these glass doors, a kind of dream.
But The Stranger also presents a real choice for Ellida, one that is, yes, poetic in nature, but must also live in the real world. With Wangel and The Stranger both feeling more figurative than hard-core, it’s hard for there to be any theatrical warmth in the decision Ellida has to make.
And yet, even as I write this, I wonder if my view, desiring a stronger expression of Ibsen’s realist facet, a fair fight of the practical versus the abstract, may simply be the point of view of someone too earthly.