Love lost and renewed. Annelise Dickinson, Whitney Derendinger and Charles Askenaizer.
Pistols at dawn. We have dueling Henrik Ibsen productions. Overture Center boasts Aquila Theatre's An Enemy of the People until March 28. Meanwhile, University Theatre presents The Lady from the Sea at Vilas Hall's Hemsley Theatre through April 10.
Allusions to water and the sea permeate The Lady from the Sea, which also references Norwegian folk tales and mermaid myths. At the risk of sounding as cheesy as greeting cards, the message boils down to: If you love something, set it free. Filling out the 1888 play are explorations of the push-pull of relationships, of the hope of finding one's place in the world, of love lost and renewed. Ibsen's language is beautiful, and this 122-year-old play feels forward-thinking in its examination of women's options, free will and how soul-deadening it can be to merely settle.
Young and lovely Ellida (Annelise Dickinson) grew up in a lighthouse overlooking the sea. She has always felt a strong attraction to the water and an even stronger attraction to the mysterious seafarer (Charles Askenaizer) she promised to wait for when he ran off, accused of killing his captain. She pines for him but accepts an offer to marry the kind widower Dr. Wangel (Whitney Derendinger) and becomes stepmother to his girls Boletta (Alanna Reeves) and Hilde (Alexandria Odekirk). She relocates to a small village where her access to the open sea is blocked and her new role as wife and mother stifles her.
Her infant son dies, and so does the intimacy in the marriage. She becomes increasingly distant. Concerned about her mental health, Wangel summons Dr. Arnholm (William Bolz), her friend and Boletta's former tutor. Ellida has her own complicated history with Arnholm, who mistakenly believes that he has been beckoned to pursue a union with Boletta. When the seafarer returns to claim Ellida, she has to choose between her unfulfilled life and the man who has consumed her thoughts.
We first see the enigmatic Ellida when she returns from her daily swim. I was drawn in by Dickinson's loveliness: her high cheekbones; her dark, wavy hair dramatic against pale skin; the way her long hands gracefully fluttered at the neck of her flowy dressing gown. But she's much better in quiet moments. Her acting becomes shrill and one-note as things progress. The entire production begins to feel a bit bogged down and sluggish, sort of like the stagnating water Ellida complains about.
Reeves as the older and wiser sister Boletta has a natural and believable presence, and she shines in a scene with the young sculptor Lyngstrand (Christopher Nier), as she playfully pokes holes in his theory about the glory of being an artist's wife. It's particularly sad when she realizes that her only hope to escape her small village, see the world and continue her studies is to marry her former tutor.
Odekirk's sassy, impulsive Hilde has a vicious mean streak and a morbid sense of humor. Derendinger has a maturity that grounds his performance as a husband confounded first by his wife's distance, then by her revelations about her past. But he seems somewhat ill at ease when voicing his character's old-fashioned and repressive views about the rules of marriage.
William Curry's attractive and well-constructed costuming helps to underscore Ellida's connection to the sea -- especially in comparison to the earthy hues he uses for the rest of the cast. Co-dramaturges Erin Hood and Megwyn Sanders-Andrews have done their homework. Their remarks in the program and online are interesting -- and could really flesh out Wikipedia's skimpy entry on the play.