When talking of playwright Henrik Ibsen, the first phrase that usually springs to mind is “A Doll’s House”, his most well known play. Less recognized in his canon is “The Lady from the Sea”, which has been slightly reimagined by Erin Shields’s adaption (directed by Meg Roe) for the Shaw Festival. And during the first little bit, it feels like this play will be one of the versions strongly adhered to in the future.
For starters, a naked and sopping wet Moya O’Connell writhes around on a giant rock (set design Camellia Koo) in the middle of the stage, while “I Have Walked This Body” by Nordic singers Susanna and Jenny Hval crashes over the audience as powerfully as ocean surf in a storm. It’s a dark, yet thrilling, prelude to the play’s five acts, all of which alternate between the Doctor Wangel (Ric Reid) and his wife, Ellida (O’Connell)’s backyard and Koo’s rock. Ellida first entered Wangel’s life five years ago, assimilating somewhat awkwardly into the family unit that also contains two daughters: the raven-haired beauty Bolette (Jacqueline Thair), who’s in search of more education than her small seaside town can provide, and her younger sister, Hilde (Darcy Gerhart), who’s developed a rough, caustic side to her as a way of self-defense from lack of motherly affection.
Life isn’t perfect for the four of them — the death of Wangel and Ellida’s five-month-old baby initially seems to be the biggest culprit — but as the play goes on, different sources of unhappiness bubble to the surface. Bolette desperately wants to increase her knowledge base, but isn’t sure if she’s ready to ready to take that step at any cost. Her potential way out comes in the form of her childhood tutor, Arnholm (Andrew Bunker), although he’s offering a path that may not be the most ideal. Her sister, on the other hand, seems eager to shack up with a companion, with a possible suitor coming in the way of weak-lunged Lyngstrand (Kyle Blair), whose ego and pitiful art don’t seem to be deterrents for her. She’s the type of person who needs plenty of love and affection to survive, and isn’t getting enough of it at home.
Lyngstrand, speaking of him, is brilliantly acted by Blair. He’s got both ends of the spectrum down, from the subtle yearning for a hopeful future to the brash — and misplaced — confidence about his talents that often veer into the territory of arrogance. Of the male players, his performance is the strongest, although Neil Barclay’s brief appearances as the town jack-of-all-trades Ballested are also to be treasured.
Reid’s Dr. Wangel and Bunker’s Arnholm occupy a murky middle territory where they each come so close to a rich embodiment of their respective characters, but end up just a little too dry and short of reaching the finish line. Bolette explains to Arnholm that while little girls may idolize their tutors, the women they grow into know better; this would very well be the case if Bunker looked like a stodgy old educator, but with his strong jaw and thick, dark mane, it’s hard to understand how his looks can garner such little attention from the opposite gender. For his part, Reid’s performance is far more consistent with his character and it’s more a case of needing a little more oomph to finish things off.
But ah, there’s still one more male in “The Lady from the Sea” and that’s the one who visits the titular character. He’s the nameless, shadowy Stranger (Mark Uhre), a possibly murderous sailor who has a strong and captivating effect over Ellida. They met on a ship and married the Nordic way, and now he’s come back into her life to claim her. And while Uhre has a strong presence, it isn’t a commanding one and fails to explicitly show just why Ellida has been tortured by his psychic presence for so long. O’Connell contributes well on her end, digging deep within herself to pull up plenty of tortured emotions. Part of the fascination of watching her is to see how she plays off her partners — but she can’t be the entire play herself, and would have been better suited with someone else.
When the play finally ends, it feels like a bit of a letdown. We don’t get a Hollywood ending — which is more than okay — but the way in which it’s been delivered feels slightly empty. We’re left wondering, is this all there is to it? Although Shields stays faithful to Ibsen’s ending, one can’t erase the thought that somehow she missed a piece somewhere. It’s almost as though Shields doesn’t know what sort of statement she wants to make with her interpretation. Is it a commentary on women and their role in society? Or is she more getting at the concept of freedom and what it means for different people?
In spite of that, she’s done a great job in keeping “The Lady from the Sea” running tightly at 90 minutes, making the pacing one of the most exciting parts of the play. And director Meg Roe is right up there in keeping the ball rolling, lending a firm yet gentle hand to the events, which coincide beautifully with Kevin Lamotte’s lighting and Alessandro Juliani’s sound and music (his is original music).