Down but no means out

Little Eyolf

By Henrik Ibsen
Directed by Joseph Heissan Jr.
Westside Repertory Theatre
252 W. 81st St. (874-7290)
Non-union production (closes May 24)
Review by Adrienne Onofri

Although Henrik Ibsen's more famous plays A Doll's House and Ghosts generated tremendous controversy when they were first produced, it's easy to see how his later and lesser-known work Little Eyolf could also shock 19th-century audiences who had been weaned on silly melodramas and romances. Little Eyolf is a two-and-a-half-hour portrait of a marriage so bleak it makes Nora and Torvald Helmer's doomed union in A Doll's House seem almost enviable.

As usual, the Westside Repertory Theatre does an impressive job with a classic under extremely limited circumstances. Possessor of seemingly the smallest theater and stage Off-Off-Broadway, the company is able to minimize the distractions and awkwardness that might result from working in such a tiny area. The size of the stage is actually an asset in one respect: it intensifies the suffocating feel of this marriage.

The unhappy husband and wife in Little Eyolf are Alfred and Rita Allmer, and the drama takes place on their country estate beside a fjord in Norway. Alfred married Rita for money-in particular, so he could provide for his half-sister Asta-and probably also to sublimate his unnatural feelings for Asta. Rita married Alfred out of a need to own someone heart and soul, mind and Rita, that's what love is. Now, several years later, the Allmers must finally confront the realities and deceits of their marriage and cope with the additional hardship of caring for their ailing son Eyolf, who was crippled in a fall.

As in A Doll's House, Ibsen shows foresighted sensitivity to women's fulfillment. In Little Eyolf, however, it is the husband who has been trapped and controlled, first by obligations to his family after his father died, then by his marriage. Devotees of the classics would be interested in Little Eyolf because of its place in Ibsen's oeuvre and his significance in theater history. The Westside Repertory production also is an excellent example of what an Off-Off-Broadway company can do with limited resources. But this play is a real downer-not exactly what most people would flock to for entertainment.

The actors are all very good: Teresa Kelsey, Emma Jacobson-Sive and Timothy Jeffryes in the key roles of Rita, Asta and Alfred plus Jack Sundmacher and Joan Baker in the smaller adult roles. The performances respect the time and place in which the play is set and ably convey the characters' repressing of emotions as well as their outbursts. The costumes (coordinated by Michael Van Dalsem and Doug DeVita) are authentic for the period, and the original score by Don Hagar complements the mood nicely.

(Also featuring Luca Bigini. Lighting, Martin E. Vreeland; production design, Martin E. Vreeland and Doug DeVita.)

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Set: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 1998 Adrienne Onofri