Review: Court Theatre’s The Lady from the Sea, a Lesser-Known Ibsen Work, Lacks a Sense of Purpose

If my records are correct (yes, I keep track of these things), the last production I saw at Hyde Park’s Court Theatre (before…you know) was the interesting and intriguing Photograph 51. That production’s biggest draw, I remember, was its lead actress, Chaon Cross, an actress with notable stage presence and a long history on Chicago stages. She is back at Court for a new translation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea, running through March 27 (an online streaming version is available through April 10), after the production was originally cancelled on the eve of lockdowns exactly two years ago.

In opening remarks (this special evening warranted them), director Shana Cooper commented that this rarely produced play by the well-known playwright has been one she’s wanted to mount for over a decade; this version of the show is based off a new translation of Ibsen’s original, as created by Richard Nelson. Cross returns alongside the rest of the original creative team, including a small ensemble cast and choreography by Cooper collaborator Erika Chong Shuch (yes, there’s choreography). Opening night clearly held high expectations for a long-awaited premiere, making it all the more disappointing that The Lady from the Sea fails to catch a tide and carry us away with it.

Written in 1888, The Lady from the Sea centers on Ellida (Cross), a woman married to a perfectly amenable town doctor, Wangel (Gregory Linington); she’s stepmother to his two teenage (I think…?) daughters, the rambunctious and rebellious Hilda (Angela Morris) and the more measured (but actually stifled) Bolette (Tanya Thai McBride). The play opens as the girls are openly celebrating their dead mother’s birthday with no regard to Ellida’s feelings regarding such a fete. The family lives in the Norwegian mountains with a view of a busy fjord, international steamer ships coming and going with their cargo and passengers. It’s as far from the sea as Ellida has ever been, having grown up in a seaside town and now finding solace in her daily swims.

A young man enters their orbit, a sailor named Lyngstrom (Will Mobley) who plans to return to the sea just as soon as his health recovers. Soon, a former tutor of the girls (and an old friend of Ellida’s) arrives, too; Arnholm (Samuel Taylor) has been summoned by Wangel, though for a different reason than he initially believes. The small cast is rounded out by Bellested (Dexter Zollicoffer), a local townsman who, honestly, has about half a dozen lines and not much to do. There’s also the role of the Stranger (Kelli Simpkins), which becomes pivotal as the show progresses, though it’s just one of many examples of a miscast role that ultimately costs the production dearly. Each of these actors is capable enough, and none turn in a particularly objectionable performance. There is, however, a sense that umbrellas the entire cast that none of them can keep up with Cross, nor are these actors suited for their roles as described in the text of the show itself. Arnholm, we’re told, is supposed to be an old man, balding and past his prime; I haven’t fact-checked this, but Taylor can’t be yet 50 years old.

What Cooper aimed to highlight in this production, she shared with us, was the exploration of female autonomy and choice, to dive deep (forgive me) into Ellida’s psyche as she’s faced with a seemingly impossible decision: remain in a life that she opted into by default (what else was she to do?) or leave it all behind for a tumultuous future with someone she barely knows. On a relatively bare stage (designed by Andrew Boyce) covered with sand and punctuated with a water effect (a small pool fills downstage that actors traipse in and out of), Cross does her best to fill the space with her agony and despair. But neither of her suitors seems like they are terribly connected to Elilda. Linington’s Wangel is mopey and resigned, lacking any sign of an abiding love for his wife beyond missing their physical connection. And as a gender-bending Stranger (the character is referred to as “he” and “man” in the dialogue), Simpkins lacks any charisma, let alone enough for us to believe that this is who Ellida risked her reputation and her future for.

Ibsen’s best-known work, A Doll’s House, similarly deals with a woman facing a seemingly impossible choice, and yet that production has remained relevant and timely since its premiere in 1879. Nelson’s uneven translation of The Lady from the Sea, and Cooper’s less-than-impressive realization of it, lacks a depth of character development and, perhaps more importantly, never quite lets us into Ellida’s tormented inner monologue to understand why and how she makes the decisions she does. I kept waiting for a grand moment, some unexpected revelation or a shift in the show’s energy at all, enough to make the time spent with these characters and their troubled relationships worth it. That moment never came, and even as the narrative resolves its many plot points, it nevertheless leaves one wishing there’d been more there there in the first place.

Director Shana Cooper, a member of Woolly Mammoth Company in Washington DC, directs at theaters all over the country, including the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. She currently teaches in the MFA directing program at Northwestern University. We reviewed her production of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar at Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn in 2019.

The Lady from the Sea is playing now through March 27 at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.; tickets are $37.50-$84 and available at 773-753-4472 or www.courttheatre.org. For more information on this and other productions, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Lisa Trifone

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