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The Woman from the Sea

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Okay, Henrik Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea is no Hedda Gabler, but did it need to be rewritten?

Spence Porter apparently thought it did. The Woman from the Sea - now being produced at the T. Schreiber Studio - is the result, and it demonstrates the folly in upsetting the precarious balance that is effective theatre, be it great or perhaps only mediocre.

Porter's has kept almost all the elements of Ibsen's original: The story, the characters, and even the geographic setting are all practically the same. Porter did, however, change two things: The time frame (the play now takes place in the late 1950s) and he softened some of the original play's rougher melodramatic edges. Yet, in doing so, he has also greatly reduced the effectiveness of the story of the somewhat mysterious Ellida Wangel, whose marriage and family are threatened by a secret from her past come back (literally) to haunt her.

This is due, primarily, to two factors: First, Ibsen's working in a very specific idiom that informed all of his characters and situations with a certain dramatic gravity, that, when removed, violates the subject matter's spiritual core. Porter has essentially burned the mist off the fjords, expanding the world beyond the story's capacity to support it. Hal Tiné's gorgeous backdrop suggests a bright, golden morning on the fjords, yet also suggests an expansiveness that hurts the story. With the location's stifling nature removed, there's little provide the isolation to make Ellida's choice between an uncertain adventurous life and a secure, staid one the center of the drama.

Also gone is Ibsen's rich, poetic writing. Occasionally overwrought or not, Ibsen probed the characters' inner beings; Porter's words can't quite penetrate their skin. Porter's characters all speak quite casually and familiarly, appropriate for the adjusted time frame, perhaps, but seldom conducive to an exciting theatrical experience. Tiné's set, a gravity-defying collection of platforms and handrails, David Toser's costumes, and Joe Saint's lights provide character Porter's writing never does.

Still, while the story's soul is lacking, the performers provide some heart to help make up for it. Margaret Dawson and David Winton, as Ellida Wangel and her husband, work very hard, but have difficulty immersing themselves completely in the show; they always seem to be fighting against the material, trying to give nuanced performances in unduly trying circumstances. Neither completely succeeds, but their valiant efforts do contribute positively to the play. Tatjana Vujosevic and Debbie Jaffe, if thoroughly American throughout, give warm, intelligent portrayals of Dr. Wangel's daughters, as do Peter Byrne and Fred Rueck as the girls' prospective suitors. A. J. Handegaard creates an eerily effective and otherworldly stranger who threatens Ellida's current life, and Sterling Coyne's Ballister - if unduly effeminate and over-the-top every moment onstage - is quite entertaining.

The studio's own Terry Schreiber directed this production with a firm hand that simply cries out for a more established sense of power and drama from its source. Schreiber and his studio, which frequently does highly impressive and detailed work, succeed at elevating The Woman from the Sea, to an almost workable level. One can't help but wonder, though, what they might do if they confronted the original Ibsen.

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T. Schreiber Studio
The Woman from the Sea
Through February 23
T. Schreiber Studio, 151 West 26th Street, 7th Floor
Schedule and Tickets: (212) 741-0265