There’s a pecking order to plants. While anyone can keep a cactus and ivy in every office, most turf-turners avoid the trickier taxonomies. Plays are like plants in this way. And that’s a pity considering the blooming payoff.
Playwright August Strindberg finds a gutsy gardener in director Katherine Owens at Undermain Theatre. His Easter blooms under her careful hand. She coaxes her collaborators into a sophisticated production of this rarely performed piece. Most theatre companies would be satisfied with lilies for the season but with Owens, it’s orchids.
Lighting designer Steve Woods glances his gentle wash off John Arnone’s set of white ceiling and scrim walls, which Giva Taylor answers with dashes of sheer in her period precise costumes. All of the elements combined with Bruce Dubose’s ambient sound design evoke the murky weather, dreary predicament and hazy future. This is the subtle alchemy of seasoned theatrical pros. They do dreamy without the pandering fog machine. Strindberg’s text opens wide under these careful conditions.
But planting is a patience game. For all the beauty in botany it’s really a matter of hydraulics and that is all about pressure. That explains the first two acts of this three-act evening.
Elis Heyst’s (David Goodwin) emotion vacillates with meteorological variability. His fiancé, Christina (Shannon Kearns-Simmons) tries her best to keep the clouds at bay, but she’s marrying into a mess. Elis’ mother, Fru Heyst (Laura Jorgensen), isn’t altogether all together and his sister, Eleanora (Fiona Robberson) is in an asylum. Even his pupil, the brooding boarder Benjamin (Dan Schmoker), is a disappointment, at least in Latin.
At the root of all of this melancholy is Elis’ father who made off Madoff style with a lot of people’s money. While he’s in jail, the family is ostracized and must serve their own sort of sentence. A constant threat is the creditor, Lindquist (Bruce DuBose) who has the note to their house and all its belongings. Adding to the turgor is Eleanora escaping the asylum and breaking into a flower shop on the way home. Strindberg uses all of this pressure to make his dramatic flower bloom later.
Pressure affects actors differently than flowers, though. The tension in David Goodwin’s Elis keeps him from going far enough in any direction. The highs and lows are dampened like a trumpet with a muffle. It’s all poise and no pounce. Some of Strindberg’s humor is lost, as well as Elis’ humanity. Shannon Kearns-Simmons has to keep her Christina within reach of Elis in order to sell their courtship. Fortunately, Jorgensen as the fraught Fru Heyst doesn’t. Consequently, we see some of the wink in Strindberg’s work. Jorgenen’s razor emotional turns and overt matronly jabs provided the giggles that improved the pace of the show.
Robberson’s Eleanora is in a different class altogether. Like a chorus delivering the voice of the author she draws the conclusions for the audience banging a gong for the redemptive power of suffering. Pronounced imbalanced before she appears, Robberson manages to make Eleanora’s poetic pronouncements guilelessly beguiling. She keeps her performance as simple as the single daffodil her character stole.
For thievery in full bloom, though, no one can compare to Bruce Dubose, who’s third act crouching tiger, hidden creditor Lindquist steals the show and lets it bloom. It is true that Lindquist is empowered to move the plot, allowing DuBose to release the pressure, but DuBose bears the responsibility like a privilege. By the end of the final scene he so buoys the audience that they had to stand for the ovation.
You’ll leave lighter than you came. That’s as good as an endorsement as any activity available this spring. Who would’ve thought the dreary Swede would serve a dish so sweet? But bulbs have to die back in order to bloom, after all. So, it goes with Strindberg’s Easter: a death and resurrection of the theatrical botanical.