NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. – The opening scene of the Shaw Festival’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s “The Lady From the Sea,” now in the Court House Theatre, is a thing of terrifying beauty.
As the lights go up on an enormous rock formation at the center of the stage, a naked form pulls herself up from the water with noticeable effort. The distorted drone of Asessandro Juliani’s dread-inspiring sound design booms over the crowd as a thin, bright line appears on a screen at the back of the stage to signify the horizon. The naked figure (Moya O’Connell), meant to symbolize a mythical stranded mermaid, is clearly confused and out of place. She simply stares off at that fluorescent line as the music and lights faded back to nothing.
This is a shockingly modern start to Ibsen’s shockingly modern 1888 play about a woman drawn to the depth and darkness of the sea and stranded not only on dry land but in a passionless and claustrophobic marriage to a man she never loved.
But the rest of the play, based on a new translation of Ibsen’s original by Canadian playwright Erin Shields and directed by Meg Roe, fails to live up to the promise of that searing prologue.
The one-act, which plays out in a surprisingly fast-paced 90 minutes, centers on the plight of Ellida Wangel (O’Connell). Every morning, she swims in the fjord where she lives with her adoring husband Wangel (Ric Reid), dreaming of a three-day fling she had with an American stranger (Mark Uhre) three years before. For Ellida, every morning is a thrilling dance with death, every afternoon a numbing reconciliation with life on dry land.
In exchange after exchange between Ellida and her husband, this production hammers home the idea of the sea and its irresistible pull as a metaphor for freedom and death. It contains more than its share of eye-roll-inducing dialog pertaining to that allure, from Ellida’s constant declarations of her fidelity to the sea to her husband’s diagnosis of her mental malady: “She seems calm, but there’s something brewing underneath.”
The symbolism is thick enough, and the exchanges between the gifted O’Connell and Reid strained enough, that the emotional potential of the play – as captured in the abstract power of that opening scene – fails to float to the surface. Individually, there’s great pathos to each of their performances, but together that pathos hardens into wooden recitation.
The main conflict is mirrored with a mercifully lighter touch in the relationship between Wangel’s daughter Bolette (Jacqueline Thair) and a professor Arnholm (Andrew Bunker).
Luckily for theatergoers allergic to heavy-handedness, the production is not entirely humorless. It features fine comic performances from Kyle Blair as the sickly aspiring artist Hans Lyngstrand and Neil Barclay as the multitalented townsman Ballested, who stands as a symbol for the way humans must adapt themselves to new environments in order to survive.
And there’s much to be said for Camellia Koo’s stark and simple design and Kevin Lamotte’s lighting, which employs a single set piece brilliantly to serve as a constant reminder of the tension between land and sea, containment and freedom, limitation and possibility.
If only the script functioned quite as well.
2.5 stars (Out of four)
What: “The Lady From the Sea”
When: Through Sept. 13
Where: Court House Theatre, 26 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
Tickets: $30 to $142.38
Info: (800) 5117429, shawfest.com