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At George Mason University Center for the Arts TheaterSpace to Oct. 1

The Lady From the Sea is one of Henrik Ibsen’s lesser-known plays, rarely performed—for good reason. Overwrought and melodramatic where it means to be poetic and piquantly absurd, it seems unworthy of the author of A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler. George Mason University’s Theater of the First Amendment, under the direction of Rick Davis, makes a conscientious stab at transforming this dramatic gruel into a livelier dish but isn’t up to the task.

Ellida Wangel is the daughter of a lighthouse keeper, the second wife of a doctor—a considerably older man—and the stepmother of his two daughters, Bolette and Hilda. Brought to Dr. Wangel’s home in an isolated little inland town near a fjord, she has become wildly distracted, fixated on the sea and tarrying at the shore for long swims.

Worried about his wife, Dr. Wangel has sent for Bolette’s former tutor and family friend, Mr. Arnholm, to cheer her up and divine what’s troubling her. Also flitting about is an immature, egotistical sculptor, Mr. Lyngstrand, who’s visiting the town in an effort to recover his health—he’s had “shortness of breath” ever since a ship he was aboard several years before capsized in the icy English Channel. Arnholm’s history with Ellida and his current infatuation with Bolette thicken the tension in an already awkward, if outwardly respectable, household.

We soon learn that Ellida is pining after an American sailor, with whom she had a brief, tempestuous relationship some 10 years before. As it happens, the ship on which Lyngstrand capsized also had the sailor on board, and Lyngstrand is sure that the mysterious fellow perished—upon reading about Ellida’s marriage in an old newspaper and becoming enraged. Coincidentally, too, an English ship is now docking nearby—and you’ll never guess who’s on board.

Charitable scholars read into the play a gripping treatment of some serious themes: the limited choices of women in bourgeois society, how little we know about even those closest to us, the allure of the unknown, the primal strength of lust belying social convention. All worthy of our attention—but not in this ridiculous package. With its thin coincidences, pseudoscience, and hints of supernatural realms, The Lady From the Sea was no doubt a daring departure for Ibsen from his characteristic domestic realism—a daring departure, but not a prudent one.

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For starters, Ellida is such an unpleasant, self-absorbed heroine that it’s hard to care about her passions or her fate. Her views are an uncompelling blend of romantic clichés, protofeminist bombast, and half-baked science. Dithering on about how man should have evolved into a sea creature, she comes across not as deep but simply a few crayons short of a box. She and her husband lost their 5-month-old boy several years before (yes, just about the time that the mysterious sailor is said to have perished), but even that loss, which should soften us toward her, is overshadowed by her obsession with the infant’s eyes, which she claims “changed colors with the sea,” just like those of her erstwhile beau. Her stepdaughters loathe her, and, ultimately, so do we. If she’s so eager to return to the salty elements from whence all life has sprung, it’s not at all clear to us why old Wangel doesn’t just cut his losses and let her.

The First Amendment cast valiantly attempts to give Ibsen’s muck some meaningful shape. As Ellida, Laurena Mullins gives a vigorous but misguided performance, trying to make up for the part’s incoherence with a strident, quavery delivery that only draws attention to the character’s hysterical self-aggrandizement. “You both terrify and attract,” her husband tells her. She responds: “Do you really feel that, Wangel?” Maybe he does; we sure don’t. Bill Hamlin is an unobjectionable Dr. Wangel, though a little too smooth, in a soap-opera way, to give his supposed concern for Ellida the appropriate weight. Then again, he was to work with lines such as “Ellida belongs with the sea people….They can’t bear to be transported.” Bradley Thoennes fares better as the pathetic Arnholm. We feel his bafflement at misreading the Wangels’ situation as well as the desperation with which he’s determined to secure a romantic allegiance from one Wangel woman or another. And as Bolette, the hopeless, helpless quarry of his predatory wooing, Colleen Delany is also quite sympathetic, making it clear how much trouble Bolette has choosing from such a puny menu of unappetizing life options.

The most interesting aspect of the play is Hilda’s toying with the hapless, self-satisfied Lyngstrand, who—she learns from her physician father—is not fighting off some trivial nuisance of a malady but, in fact, dying without realizing it. She takes savage pleasure in goading him to speak about the magnificent future as a sculptor she knows he’ll never have, going so far as to ask him how he thinks she’d look in black. This vein of the story is the most modern, the most grimly humorous, and Taylor Coffman and Dwayne Nitz, as Hilda and Lyngstrand, respectively, make a nice thrust and parry of it.

Director Davis’ pacing is sluggish. It’s hard to tell how much of this torpor is the fault of the starched plot, how much is intended to convey social awkwardness, and how much might have been alleviated by a bit more rehearsal of Brian Johnston’s new translation. There’s much talk of horrors and terrors, but no real horrors or terrors to speak of, no matter how loud and rumbly the synthesized bass notes get during portentous monologues. The incidental waltz music and comedy-of-manners lightness interspersed with ghosts and furies is just confusing—but again, it’s inherent in the script, which also has a number of loose ends. What to make of hints that the good Dr. W. drinks too much and overmedicates his wife? How are we to feel about Bolette and Arnholm’s no-doubt ghastly future together when they appear so sanguine about it? And what of the sailor’s apparently having murdered, all those years before, his ship’s captain? Ellida thinks it was justifiable, but she doesn’t tell us why, and she’s not exactly a reliable character witness. There’s nothing, dramatically, to be gained by leaving these mysteries unresolved, but Ibsen doesn’t give us any clues, and Davis can’t make up for the omissions.

For what it’s worth, Howard Vincent Kurtz’s period-authentic costumes are elegant. Jason Rubin’s set and Martha Mountain’s lighting are versatile and pleasant, in a minimalistic way, allowing the small stage to become summer house, garden, and—behind a scrim—ocean, too.

Lots of appreciable effort, but to little end. “Goodbye, woman,” the Stranger eventually says, in perhaps the most sensible lines of the play. “From now on, you are no more than a shipwreck I survived.”

Well put. CP