Friday, October 26, 2012

UMKC Theatre "Lady from the Sea" review by DeborahBuckner

An Easy Choice Rating: 4

The Lady from the Sea
UMKC Theatre

UMKC Theatre brings the sea to Spencer Theatre with its production of Henrik Ibsen's "The Lady From the Sea". The show runs through October 28 and should not be missed.

Though less familiar than such Ibsen works as "A Doll's House", "Hedda Gabler", "Peer Gynt", or "Ghosts", "The Lady From The Sea" certainly bears Ibsen's mark. Ellida (Courtney Salvage), like Nora of "A Doll's House", is a conflicted woman trapped between the stirrings of her heart and the role she has been cast to play. As the second wife of Doctor Wangel (Logan Black), she lives in the shadow of her predecessor and has a tense relationship with her stepdaughters, Bolette (Jessica Biernacki-Jensen) and Hilde (Janae Mitchell). Her relationship with Doctor Wangel has been floundering since the death of their mutual child, a son only five months old, three years before the play begins. In that time, Ellida has been haunted by recurring thoughts of a former love, a man of the sea.

Trying to help his young wife, Doctor Wangel summons Arnholm (Michael R. Pauley), a former tutor of his daughters, and an old friend of Ellida from her days as the daughter of a lighthouse keeper. The Doctor believes the company and conversations of old times may help rescue Ellida from the dark places she seems to inhabit. Armholm misunderstands his summons, believing he is to be a companion to his former student, now a grown young lady, Bolette.

Through a visiting young man, Lyngstrand (Vincent Wagner), Ellida learns of the return of her love from long ago. Presumed to have died in a shipwreck, The Stranger (Antonio Jerron Glass) is still living, coming back to claim the woman he made his "bride" when he joined her ring with his on a chain and cast them together into the sea. Giving her a deadline of one day, before his ship is to sail, he tells Ellida she must choose whether to stay in the stale life on a fjord where the water is "dead" or join him in a life on the open seas.

The sea is always present, the simple set evoking the shore with the stage tinted blue and the play of light suggesting rippling waves. It provides a contrasting image of freedom, risk, the unknown opposite the sedate life in a small community, stifled by the doctor's busy practice and Ellida's strained relationship with his daughters.

Silence is used to great effect in this production. So often, it seems actors fear silence and want to rush with lines to keep dialogue flowing. Here, the awkwardness and difficulty expressing emotion is made clear by inserting pauses, giving the audience time to reflect. This works especially well in a scene in Ellida's arbor, where she tries to explain to Arnholm, a man who had once proposed to her, that she had already fallen in love with the man of the sea.

There are strong performances from all. Miss Salvage fully captures Ellida's emotional turmoil, and when she makes her decision, the audience knows she has chosen well. As Doctor Wangel, Black is a likeable man devoted to his practice, trying to make his blended family work, wrestling to understand his young wife and her needs. Miss Biernacki-Jensen and Miss Mitchell, as Bolette and Hilde, have the perfect chemistry as sisters, Bolette proper and studious, Hilde the family tyrant. Pauley is completely the tutor Arnholm, a man devoted to his work, yet longing for more. As the visiting ill young artist, Lyngstrand, Wagner demonstrates a sensitivity and weakness, a man knowing his fate, yet finding a way to romanticize everything. Thomas E. Tucker provides nice moments of comic relief as Ballested, "the local jack of all trades," always ready to find a way to lead tourists to part with their money - acting as an artist, a dance master, a tour guide.

The only performance that is troubling is that of The Stranger, and this is a choice of direction rather than of acting. Glass presents a man who is strong and defiant, demanding Ellida to follow and be his. While it is important to make a contrast between the characters of The Stranger and Doctor Wangel, it seems difficult to believe Ellida could ever have loved this domineering man of the sea. A softer tone from the Stranger would be helpful, giving the impression that it is his love and passion that makes him so insistent, not just a need to control. As the character is presented, Ellida's choice between the overbearing former love and the gentle Doctor seems an easy one.

This is an enjoyable production that will leave the audience thinking for sometime about relationships and the conflicts between freedom and security.

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