‘The Lady from the Sea’: There’s something in the water in Court’s abstract, sometimes amusing Ibsen adaptation

Heavy on metaphor and verbal imagery, the play considers the raw yearnings of the life that isn’t, and the entrapment of the one that is.

SHARE ‘The Lady from the Sea’: There’s something in the water in Court’s abstract, sometimes amusing Ibsen adaptation

Raised in a lighthouse, Ellida (Chaon Cross) has trouble adjusting to married life elsewhere in “The Lady from the Sea.”

Michael Brosilow

At the start of Court Theatre’s production of the rarely produced Henrik Ibsen play “The Lady from the Sea,” director Shana Cooper and her design team deliver one of the more exquisite images you’ll see on stage. Behind a set of sliding glass doors, we see the actress Chaon Cross appearing to float on her side as if she were a sea creature, a mermaid. Her movement feels fluid, her body relaxed. It’s a vision of someone at peace with her surroundings. It’s a most alluring illusion, a brief but memorable bit of theatrical magic.

The character is Ellida, the title character, a lady who “belongs” to the sea even while she lives on land. In our own idiomatic terms, she’s a fish out of water.

Ellida grew up by the sea, in a hard-to-access lighthouse where suitors were few to almost none. But after the very respectable Dr. Wangel (Gregory Linington) lost his first wife, he proposed to Ellida and she accepted, moving to live with him and his two daughters in a Norwegian fjord, which we may think of for its majestic cliffs, but which to Ellida is defined by polluted water and a blocked view of the sea beyond. The nature of her choice to marry Wangel and live this different life — was it a free one, or did she simply have no other option? — will drive the decision she must make in the play between staying and going.

‘The Lady from the Sea’

The Lady from the Sea review

When: Through March 27

Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.

Tickets: $37.50-$84

Info: CourtTheatre.org

Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission

“The Lady from the Sea” overflows with metaphor and verbal imagery. It’s Ibsen in his more symbolic mode, but that doesn’t mean it is completely detached from the other qualities of his writing, his philosophical bent, or his often socially driven and political realism. Like other, far more famous works such as “A Doll’s House” and “Hedda Gabler” (the next play after this one in Ibsen’s canon), “The Lady from the Sea” considers free will vs. social expectations, and in particular the nature of marriage. Like plays such as “The Master Builder” (which shares a character with this play) and “When We Dead Awaken,” the dramatic events in “The Lady from the Sea” have a basis in reality but also, perhaps primarily, feel allegorical.

Shana Cooper, a nationally produced director helming her first major show in Chicago, leans into the abstract, the raw yearnings of the life that isn’t, and the entrapment of the one that is. She adds sequences of appealing choreography from Erica Chong Shuch, physicalizing a competition between fluidity and sharp edges. Movements repeat several times, until eventually they become interwoven into the climactic scene. Meanwhile, set designer Andrew Boyce brings more water gradually into the beach-like playing space, representing not just the sea but underlying tidal temptations.

Cooper also emphasizes the humor of the work, helped by a new translation from playwright Richard Nelson, a new contribution since this same show was shut down before its first preview in March of 2020. As the jack-of-all-trades painter Ballested, Dexter Zollicoffer manages to make Ibsen’s dialogue feel like it has punchlines, which is quite surprising. As visitors and suitors, Will Mobley and Samuel Taylor mine effectively for the comic in male egoism; this is a play where nothing draws a man more than a faraway maiden needing his saving. And as the daughters Wangel, Tania Thai McBride, as Bolette, finds just the right balance in taking the men seriously and not doing so, while Angela Morris plays something of an original mean girl in Hilda, fascinated by pushing men dangerously past their physical limits.

And Cross is luminous as Ellida, so very restless in her ill-fitting life.

But for me, Cooper is a bit off with Wangel. Linington’s care and efforts to understand come off as abstract when he’s the force of logic and reality. And Cooper makes an ultra-bold choice with a character so mysterious as to be without a name. The Stranger, written as a bearded man but played here by a gender-neutral Kelli Simpkins, first presents as a ghostly figure, behind those glass doors, a type of dream.

But the Stranger also presents a true choice for Ellida, one that is, yes, poetic in nature, but also needs to live in the real world. With Wangel and The Stranger both feeling more figurative than full-blooded, it’s hard for there to be theatrical heat in the decision Ellida must make.

And yet, even as I write this, I wonder whether my perspective, craving stronger expression of the realistic facet of Ibsen, a fair fight of the practical against the abstract, may simply be the view of someone overly landbound.

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