Dallas — Once upon a time, there lived a lighthouse-keeper’s daughter. A child of the sea, she married a widowed doctor with two sad daughters, and moved away to his home in the mountains. She loved her husband, but longed for the wind and waves—and was haunted by memories of a seafaring stranger who had promised to return and claim her for his own.
Welcome to the unexpected world of Henrik Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea, where the stuff of folk tales meets the master of modern realism, with results both curious and compelling—and an ending Ibsen’s 19th-century audiences couldn’t have seen coming. It’s the latest entry in what’s turned into something of a North Texas Ibsenpalooza, with not one but two adaptations of A Doll’s House onstage this fall, trailing talkbacks and blog discussions in their wake. (WaterTower's A Doll's House has closed; Stage West's A Doll's House, Part 2 runs through Nov. 25; you can listen to TheaterJones' podcast about Ibsen here.)
Undermain Theatre’s first Ibsen (ever!) has all the elements we expect from the playwright: a strained, stalled marriage; a restless wife and worried husband; young women yearning to break free of their limited lives; and men, young and old, mostly clueless about what the women want—and assuming they are the solution to “what ails her.”
But even at first glance, Robert Winn’s set design for the production (with Emily Haueisen’s misty background view) tells us there’s something new and different about this lesser-known 1888 work. Gone are confining walls and wintry gloom. This is Ibsen outdoors and in summer, with an airy arbor overlooking mountains and fjord (yes, it’s water—but not a “free” expanse of ocean) and Amanda Capshaw’s costumes adding freshness and simplicity.
Director Blake Hackler—who adapted Ibsen's An Enemy of the People as Enemies/People for Second Thought Theatre this summer—keeps the atmospherics in delicate balance, finding both light and shadow in this translation from the late English playwright Pam Gems. And by whatever alchemy of play, cast and direction, he gives us a surprising and revelatory take on the couple at the heart of Lady, wife Ellida (Joanna Schellenberg) and her doctor-husband Wangel (Bruce DuBose).
Expecting a dreamy sea-maiden (an old Scandinavian folk ballad was the source of Ibsen’s story), we instead meet Schellenberg’s wide-awake Ellida, sweeping past in layers of white cotton, drying loose, damp hair after her daily swim in the fjord. This is a grown woman, forceful and sharp-witted within the confines of her world—and honest to a fault once she’s made up her mind to speak.
Certainly she’s on edge, fearing her growing obsession with an old love. “I am invaded,” she cries, trying to define the mental and sexual confusion that began to grip her after the loss of the couple’s only child, a baby son whose eyes looked impossibly like those of her long-gone sailor. But Ellida doesn’t give way, and clings to her own code of honor; she can’t, for instance, stay in her husband’s bed with this old passion on her mind.
DuBose’ Dr. Wangel seems the soul of soft-spoken rationality. He’s the peacemaker of this barely blended family, moving between wife and daughters to soothe hurt feelings and anger. And though he’s come late to the game—knowing his wife is unhappy, but reluctant to speak—Wangel proves warm, supportive, and almost preternaturally perceptive about Ellida. “You need to be first,” he says to her, not the second-choice wife, excluded and alone. We’ll move, he offers, and find a new home that suits us both.
“I’d rather tell you the truth!” Ellida cries, hating the thought of uprooting his life. She’s heard from a visitor that the sailor she believed dead has survived. Will he come—inevitable as the tide itself— on one of the ships ferrying summer visitors around the fjord? (Ellida jumps, and so do we, whenever the ship’s horns blast another arrival.) As Ellida tells her husband how the sailor “married” them by joining two rings together and tossing them into the sea, we half expect the roar of anger, the inflexible commands, and (dare we say it?) the slammed door that marked the end for the Helmers of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, written a scant 10 years before Lady.
But Ellida and Wangel are not Nora and Torvald. This time, there are grownups in the room—and that makes all the difference.
Ibsen’s dual interest in mysticism and modern psychology gives the plot its electric complexity. Ellida is, both in folkloric and medical terms, under a kind of enchantment. As the stranger appears, wild and uncontrollable in Marcus Stimac’s brief portrayal—and accompanied by all the sturm und drang one could want (DuBose’ sound effects and Steve Woods’ lighting keep tensions high)—Wangel counters first with husbandly bravado and protectiveness. Then, startlingly, he becomes Ellida’s in-house therapist, desperately trying an improvised version of “the talking cure” to bring back the woman he loves.
Can enchantments be broken—and what is required of wife and husband to make it happen? Both Wangel and Ellida must give a part of themselves before Ellida, who says she has never been allowed to act “of my own free will,” will finally have the chance—just the chance—to make a true, free choice.
Will she stay, or will she go? For us, at the end, this is more than an academic exercise by a clever playwright. We’re caught up, waiting to see if Ellida and Wangel can make a go of it—if truth-telling and self-awareness can hold a candle to the Romantic/Byronic dream of a dangerous, self-annihilating attraction.
Ibsen draws a circle of minor but memorable characters around his central couple, most with their own romantic dilemmas. Wangel’s grown daughters Bolette (Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso) and Hilde (Lauren Floyd) unite in their suspicions of Ellida, but prove very different characters: Bolette demure on the surface, but desperate to escape from their boring backwater town; Hilde lively and flirtatious, but catching us off-guard with the cruelty of her humor. (Hilde is the rare character who appears twice in Ibsen, returning as the soul-wrecking young woman of The Master Builder.) Both actresses are pitch-perfect: Floyd’s Hilde mocking a young artist unaware he’s dying (“He isn’t talented; perhaps it’s just as well”), and Jasso moving us to empathy as her options grow smaller—and she struggles against trading too much of herself for a promised taste of freedom.
Comic relief comes in the form of Ballested (a dry, seen-everything Chris Messersmith), the town’s longtime jack-of-all-trades, and in the awkward machinations of two male visitors to the town—the tubercular wannabe artist Lyngstrand (Dean Wray), excitable and smug, and Bolette’s older tutor Arnholm (Jovane Caamaño), smiling but relentless in pursuit of his goals. Both men think they’re quite the catch, remarkable specimens whose influence and inspiration will “transform” any woman they want.
Artistic director Katherine Owens notes that Undermain’s production also marks the Dallas premiere of The Lady from the Sea, “only” 130 years after it was written. So much has changed—and so little—in our struggles with the complexities of the human heart, and Lady’s characterizations and themes echo down the years: Shaw’s Candida comes to mind, and the menacing physicality of the Stranger seems a foretaste of characters in the work of O’Neill and Williams.
An unusual choice, even risky—but Undermain’s deep dive into the Ibsen canon pays off, in a production that will be hard to forget.