Haunting “The Lady From the Sea” is a little-produced gem from Ibsen

Photo by Michael Brosilow

In the new Court Theatre production of The Lady From the Sea, director Shana Cooper has taken what is already one of Henrik Ibsen’s moodiest plays and upped the ante. Using a new translation from playwright Richard Nelson, commissioned after the Court’s Covid-aborted 2020 opening of the play, Cooper’s long-awaited show brings out the poetry and the mystery of this little-produced play through a combination of powerful acting, inventive casting, intriguing choreography, and a little bit of theatrical wizardry. The result, as if Cooper willed it into existence, is a complex play with tiny hints of the supernatural and all of Ibsen’s trademark characterizations.

Chaon Cross (an actress whom I would gladly watch if she were sitting onstage just reading a book) plays Ellida, the daughter of a lighthouse-keeper and a child of the sea (she was even named after a ship) who has spent the latest chapter of her life living inland—or as close as one can get near Norway’s fjords—in a little town where everyone knows everyone else. She is the second wife of the town doctor but, from the start, we can sense that their marriage is not as close as it should be. His two grown daughters (Bolette, played by Tanya Thai McBride, is the older one who dreams of college and escape from a life she didn’t choose, while Hilda, played by Angela Morris, privately wants little more than for her stepmother to acknowledge her) also seem never to have bonded with her, and Ellida has never felt “at home” in this place.

Andrew Boyce’s set does little to bring her comfort. What we see is basically a desolate stretch of beach near a small pond, dotted here and there with large rocks and a few scraggly flowers, but otherwise barren. It lies in front of the home of Dr. Wangel (Gregory Linnington as an older man who has never demanded much of his second wife). The home is more the suggestion of one, a wall of windows that opens once in a while so characters can gain entrance to the house. These windows reflect the scene in front of them, hemming Ellida in even further, but they also allow for silent scenes to occur behind them. Early in the play, for instance, after learning that some townspeople think of Ellida as the “lady from the sea,” a monicker with more than a hint of mermaid in it, we see her swimming underwater from one side of the stage to the other, making her feel even more of an “other” in this place. Indeed, she does appear more at home in the water than on land.

Ellida, we learn, has a secret. (No, she is not a literal mermaid.) Years ago, long before she was part of this family, she had a brief and torrid affair with a sailor known here as “The Stranger.” The two pledged themselves to each other before the sailor left town and, apparently, Ellida’s life…but never strayed far from her heart. In telling this story to Wanger and to old friend Arnholm (Samuel Taylor), she hints at something darker, something “unnatural” that she can never speak of that draws her as she is drawn to the sea itself. The fact that the son Ellida and Wanger had (who didn’t live long) had odd, color-changing eyes seems to point to The Stranger as potentially his father. However, the fact that Kelly Simpkins plays this role, and there is a concerted effort in this translation to avoid any gender-defining pronouns about him from Ellida, makes it feel at least possible that she is holding back that the sailor was a woman…though nothing in the play directly points that way (and the eyes, like the “lady from the sea” thing itself, would then just be one more unresolved mystery).

Either way, like Bolette, Ellida feels completely trapped in a life that she didn’t actively choose herself, stuck in this remote place in a loveless marriage, and with the sailor’s new arrival, is deeply tempted to chuck it all off and head back to the sea. Cooper, along with her choreographer, Erika Chong Shuch, brings out this sense of isolation and inner turmoil through dance and movement. From the very beginning, we see the characters going through almost ritualistic contortions that both join them together and keep them apart. In Ellida especially, Cross’s sharp, aggressive, painful movements seem to create a metaphysical straitjacket that reminds her of where her life has gone…and what she has left behind. Cross, who is mesmerizing here, is brilliant at this kind of complex character; one of her great strengths is keeping a character’s secrets while fully inhabiting her emotions, and Ellida gives her a chance to soar.

Cooper says that, from the moment she first encountered this play, it just stayed with her, and it’s easy to see why. The play is probably not for everyone—there may well be a reason that it remains locked in the shadows of other Ibsen works like Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House (both of which also feature women unhappy with their place in the world). But there is something magnificent here, a Nora who is held down by her own actions rather than her husband’s perceptions, but who strives in the same way to find a way to feel free. She may not be as much fun—or anywhere near as clueless—as the “flighty songbird” in the Helmer household, but Ellida, haunted by the road not taken, might also be easier to understand. In any case, The Lady From the Sea reveals a less-traveled side of Ibsen, and in Cooper’s artistic hands, is a beautiful, entrancing show.

The Lady From the Sea is playing at Court Theatre through March 27. Tickets are available at the box office.

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