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Lady from the Sea at Shaw Festival an exciting take on Ibsen classic

The Lady from the Sea

By Henrik Ibsen. Adapted by Erin Shields. Directed by Meg Roe. Until Sept. 13 at the Court House Theatre. 1-800-511-SHAW.

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE —It’s safe to say that the opening minutes of Friday night’s presentation of The Lady from the Sea rank as the most exciting I can recall at the Shaw Festival in recent years.

While the haunting strains of “I Have Walked This Body,” by Jenny Hval and Susanna set the mood, Kevin Lamotte’s otherworldly lighting illuminate the giant stone that constitutes Camellia Koo’s striking set.

Onto it crawled a naked Moya O’Connell, a mermaid being drowned by the sea, but yet terrified of parting from it. She finally collapses in tortured despair as the darkness surrounds her.

It’s a perfect way to begin this new examination of Ibsen’s 1888 play by author Erin Shields and director Meg Roe.

And even if the rest of the 90 intermission-less minutes that follow never quite reach that peak of sheer intensity again, their impact reverberates throughout like the aftershocks of a theatrical earthquake.

Like those other tortured Ibsen heroines, Hedda and Nora, Ellida Wangel feels imprisoned by the life she finds herself in. The daughter of a remote lighthouse keeper, she chose marriage to the older widower, Dr. Wangel, who courted her and moved away from the sea she loved to be with him and his two daughters.

There has been tension in the marriage and a child that died but what only becomes obvious over the course of the play’s action is that there has also been another man in Ellida’s past, merely called The Stranger. Whether he is a criminal or an unjustly accused fugitive, whether he is still alive or dead, are issues that are to be resolved by the final curtain.

Ibsen has also given us two men who pursue the Wangel daughters, one an older tutor, one a frail young wannabe sculptor. The wheels are set in motion for a series of interlocking tales of what women need and how badly most men fail at supplying those needs.

Shields is a gifted writer and her lightness of touch and comedic skills are welcome here, as they would be in any Ibsen play. Granted, she has things move a bit too quickly, but that’s better than the three hours agony many productions usually provide.

One could also quibble with the way Shields ties everything up with overly neat bows in the final scene, but my hope is that — seeing the script in action on the stage — she’ll be able to smooth out some rough edges and eventually bring everything into balance.

Roe never tops her coup de theatre opening, but succeeds in staging the rest of the play interestingly and striking a varied tone throughout.

O’Connell adds yet another notch on her belt, which has seen her conquer many of the great roles in modern theatre in recent years at Shaw. She is bold, she is honest, she is always fascinating to watch. One cannot ask more of any actor.

The rock-solid Ric Reid is also a joy to see as the clueless Doctor who bumbles his way into comprehension and happiness by being a decent man, while Neil Barclay provides some brilliant grace notes as Ballested, a jack of all trades in this tiny Nordic town. Kyle Blair is also winsomely appealing as Lyngstrand whose lungs are as weak as his heart is strong.

There are some problems with the rest of the casting, however. Both Jacqueline Thair and Darcy Gerhart are just a bit too contemporary as the daughters and Andrew Bunker is simply too handsome and charming to play the supposedly undesirable Professor.

And while you have to admit that inhabiting Ibsen’s mysterious Stranger, one of those darkly magnetic males who lurk in the shadows of his plays, is an ungrateful task, Mark Uhre doesn’t have quite the weight or visceral appeal to play the role.

But there is a striking new version of an Ibsen classic, some stunning visuals and a performance by O’Connell that is even worth the drive down the QEW on a crowded weekend to see.

The Lady from the Sea emerges victorious.


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