Court Theatre’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s “The Lady from the Sea” was canceled before previews in March 2020 due to the pandemic. In the interim, Tony Award-winning playwright Richard Nelson wrote a new translation. The infrequently performed classic, with fresh language, is playing at the Court Theatre through March 27.
Was it worth the wait? The production, directed by Shana Cooper, is a mixed bag—well-acted and intriguing, but sometimes uneven in tone and irritating. It seems to be two plays, a naturalistic one about the tough choices faced by women in a repressive time, and a surrealistic one about a woman as much mermaid as human. The parts don’t harmonize, and can seem as ill-matched as the main characters’ marriage.
Written in 1888, the play centers on Ellida (Chaon Cross), the daughter of a lighthouse keeper who grew up near the open sea. She is married to a doctor in a fjord town, where she complains the water is too warm. Dr. Wangel (Gregory Linington) has two daughters from a previous marriage, and the play opens with Bolette and Hilda celebrating their dead mother’s birthday, reflecting their troubled relationship to Ellida. Ellida first appears with her hair wet, dressed in a long, green gown, looking like a sea creature and out-of-sync with the chatty Victorians around her.
Years earlier, Ellida loved a sailor (Kelli Simpkins), but he murdered his captain and had to flee. He asked her to wait for him, and he returns, forcing her to choose between him and her safe, but dull husband.
The production is physically beautiful, with a set by designer Andrew Boyce of white sand and rocks, backed by black-mirrored sliding doors, creating double images of the action. Water slowly fills the front of the stage, representing the swelling tide of emotions as relationships are untangled and choices made.
There are terrific performances, particularly by Tanya Thai McBride as the humorous, conflicted Bolette, Angela Morris as the outspoken, emotional Hilda, Samuel Taylor as Bolette’s awkward former tutor Arnholm, and Will Mobley as the comically clueless Lyngstrand, whose vague health troubles are more interesting than his artistic hopes. Dexter Zollicoffer is so engaging as Ballested—the town’s local artist-dance teacher-music director—that it’s a joy whenever he’s on stage.
These scenes contrast with those between Ellida, Wangel and the sailor, which can be both stiffly mannered and emotionally over-the-top. Casting a woman as the sailor was an interesting choice, and Simpkins’ powerful charisma makes Ellida’s temptation more believable. But it was hard to sympathize with Ellida, despite Cross’ emotive powers. Linington’s yearning performance makes it clear that Wangel wants to keep his wife, but she seems like an insensitive pain in the neck.
During transitions and in part of the action, the show uses dance movements by choreographer Erika Chong Shuch, with characters tugging at themselves and each other. This was a well-intended effort to make visual the characters’ inner turmoil. But it was distracting, and pulled viewers out of the play, instead of deeper in.
“The Lady From the Sea” is an interesting experiment, but may leave playgoers as frustrated and confused as its characters.
At Court Theatre, 5535 South Ellis, (773)753-4472, courttheatre.org. Through March 27.