The Jean Cocteau Repertory Company's 25th anniversary season continued with its third consecutive success. The Lady From the Sea, Ibsen's 1888 drama, received a generally top-drawer production with many assets and few debits.
Ibsen's play crystallizes a collision of desires: that for stability and the comfort of reliable love and that for something unfathomable and mysterious. In her youth, the heroine Elida experienced a romance with a mercurial seaman, culminating in a symbolic marriage when he cast their two rings into the sea. When he is forced to flee after killing his captain in a brawl, she weds a respectable, well-meaning, and genuinely loving doctor, settling down in a small fjord town. The marriage eventually becomes emotionally inert and the nearby ocean becomes a point of obsession for her. It becomes a surrogate for the stranger she once loved: she swims compulsively in it. The stranger returns, though, and she is confronted with a defining moment in her existence, the resolution of which Ibsen achieves with an undeniable internal logic.
The text works beautifully on two levels: as a mature, intelligently constructed domestic drama, with vibrantly real characters with whom an audience can empathize; and as a symbolic meditation on greater, cosmic questions of existence. Metaphorically, the husband is at one with the enclosed geography of the land, the stranger with the expansive, mystical lure of the sea. And Rolfe Fjelde's translation is alive with resonant, immediate emotional energy. Fjelde's translations were the standard for some time and it's easy to see why.
For this production, Tom Prewitt's direction seemed the only weak link. He elicited some uniformly solid work from the actors. But, given the talent pool at the Cocteau, he had some fine raw material with which to work. More than once, though, his compositions seemed too static. His design decision to have William Moser compose a stylized, minimalist synthesis of the locales identified in the script did hit the mark in an abstract sense. An informal poll confirmed a longing for (at least ONCE) a return to the ultra-realistic mountings of Ibsen that, although de rigueur for a century, have been out of vogue for a good two decades.
Given, though, its basic concept, the physical look of the production was nicely achieved. Ofra Confino's costumes had a good sense of period and mated color to character with incisiveness. (Although the seaman's couture for the stranger led one to expect the appearance of an Old Spice bottle.) Brian Aldous's lighting neatly conveyed a sense of two worlds, ethereal and corporeal, meeting; it was matched by Peter Flint's Griegian music for setting a tone.
In the title role, Elise Stone established a palpable sense of spiritual longing -- without ever seeming obvious or belaboring the feel of it; her restlessness was contagious. As her husband, Harriss Berlinsky was able to balance a graphic vision of his character's decency, sense of honor, and goodwill with flashes of just why a woman would long for something more exotic. Craig Smith (and if there is a captain of the Cocteau team, it's this 23-year veteran) emanated the spirit of the character of the stranger beautifully. His movements fluidly dreamlike, his voice an amalgam of seemingly diverse dialects, a better interpretation of the character cannot be imagined.
Copyright 1996 John Michael Koroly
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