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by Henrik Ibsen in a version by Pam Gems

Undermain Theatre

Directed by Blake Hackler
Scenic Design by Robert Winn
Lighting design by Steve Woods
Costume Design by Amanda Capshaw
Sound Design by Bruce DuBose
Properties Design by Linda Noland

Ellida --- Joanna Schellenberg
Dr. Wangel --- Bruce DuBose
Bolette --- Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso
Stranger --- Marcus Stimac
Hilde --- Lauren Floyd
Lyngstrand --- Dean Wray
Arnholm --- Jovane Caamano
Ballested --- Chris Messersmith

Reviewed Performance: 11/10/2018

Reviewed by Chris Jackson, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

“…late Ibsen symbolism is laced with irony. Indeed, the whole play can be seen as an exploration of the several meanings attaching to the word ‘freedom’”. Michael Billington Thanks to the Undermain Theatre, Dallas has the opportunity to enjoy one of Henrik Ibsen’s seldom produced plays, The Lady from the Sea. This is not your typical Ibsen buried in unending gloom, but different in many ways that will intrigue and even startle modern audiences. Amazingly relevant about women’s issues for a play that was written in 1888, it is, as Helen Epstein says, “…a blend of domestic realism, symbolism, myth, and folktale, a drama about the varieties of love, marriage and its alternatives for women, psychological obsession, free will, and the opposing attractions of land and sea.”

Remember that Ibsen was a contemporary of a younger Freud, and like Freud, Ibsen’s true subject was the human psyche. Stephen Unwin points out that in all of his plays, Ibsen seems to be asking how people can find their true selves and become fully-rounded human beings. Unwin shares that in a letter to a friend, Ibsen wrote, “I believe that none of us can do anything other or anything better than realize ourselves in spirit and in truth.” Lady from the Sea explores that search for self-realization, and the struggle between what we owe ourselves, and what we owe to those around us. This was especially difficult for women of his period who were often caught up in their “duty,” with developing their true selves sacrificed on the altar of domesticity. A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler come immediately to mind. Ibsen often put women who illustrated this problem at the center of his plays.

In the title role, Joanna Schellenberg, as Ellida, is faced with the challenge of bringing to life one of his women who has chosen security over romance. One writer calls it “one of the finest and most demanding roles ever written for an actress.” Raised in a lighthouse, as a creature of the sea, she feels pulled and drawn back to that primal part of her being represented by “The Stranger” with whom she made a romantic pact in her past. Ms. Schellenberg manages to show us the dichotomy of a decision made for security and the yearning for what seems almost other-worldly memories. She makes visual for us the tide of these emotions ebbing and flowing through her mercurial emotional swings and fluid movement. Always superbly “present” on stage, she is never less than fully invested in each moment, laying out for us the choices and the pain each represents. Her final choice, as difficult as it may be, is believable because of the way she has built her character through revelations of inflection and movement. She avoids the ever-ominous tone of melodrama by taking this version of The Little Mermaid toward the hard truths that lie at the heart of her character.

Bruce DuBose is Dr. Wangel, the steadfast husband, a widower with two children, who courted and quickly won the hand of Ellida’s sea creature by offering an escape to a world away from the sea and its uncertainties. Mr. DuBose is resolutely strong and reliable in his every action on stage, the personification of the perfect husband who offers stability and the acceptance of society. His goals are clear and never waver. Each gesture, every reaction and movement tell us exactly who this man is. His sonorous voice exudes security. When asked to make a momentous decision, we believe his terrible struggle and admire his selfless answer. His scenes with Ms. Schellenberg are the strongest in the show, each performer totally invested in the moment, eyes locked and focused on their scene partner, giving us a display of fine acting at its best. Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso is Dr. Wangel’s eldest daughter Bolette, and Jovane Caamano is Arnholm, her former tutor and now ardent, if careful, suitor. Freedom, in this play, is a subjective concept that can mean either liberation or captivity. The irony comes in the parallel story of Bolette’s choice compared to Ellida’s. Bolette has assumed the duties of running the house for her father, and Ms. Jasso is completely believable in her efficient portrayal of the character’s body movements, gestures and speech patterns. She manages to illustrate for us the longings buried under “duty,” and when she makes her decision, we may feel loss, but also understand why. Mr. Caamano personifies the tutor’s uncertainty and hope, and his proposal scene is deeply moving because of the groundwork he has carefully laid out for us in previous scenes.

Dean Wray is the consumptive, would-be sculptor Lyngstrand, and Lauren Floyd is the younger daughter Hilde, a rebellious and even at times, merciless tease. Mr. Wray manages to find the humor in this character, showing us his ego and absolute surety that Hilde would be happy to live her life for him at her own expense. The wonderful thing about Lyngstrand is that while he is dying, he is convinced he’ll be whole again when he returns, and that Hilde should be happy to be his inspiration and compliantly await his return. Mr. Wray manages to make us feel sorry for his impending death, while at the same time amazing us with his self-centerdness. Ms. Floyd flounces around the stage, angry and hiding her need for affection with biting commentary. Thanks to her portrayal, we understand the yearning beneath the outward show. Again, a choice is made by a woman that gives us insight into the meaning of the word “freedom.”

Marcus Stimac is the mysterious Stranger who knew Ellida and entered into a strong emotional relationship with her centered around their lives by, and on, the sea. His two appearances are brief, and yet by his very physical presence, he manages to impress and represent all that Elllida yearns for. Especially in the Stranger’s last scene, I wonder if we are to believe that he might be a ghost or visualization of Ellida’s obsession. Chris Messersmith is Ballested, a painter, a hairdresser, a musician, etc, who acts as a giver of exposition, and sets up the mermaid scenario in the first scene as he paints a picture of the fjord.

Scenic Design by Robert Winn converts the Undermain playing space into a long, narrow rectangle, surrounded on three sides by audience seating. A projection of a fjord appears from time to time at the upstage edge of the stage. A raised platform in front of the projection reveals itself after intermission to be a pond with floating lily pads, and the floor is painted with a path. At the opposite end of the stage area, an arbor, where Ellida can sit and dream, is indicated by an overhead trellis covered in vines. Furniture is moved quickly and efficiently by the actors between scenes/acts. Mr. Winn’s set works well in its sparseness, setting the scene, and echoing the constant references to water and the sea in its use of color in the painting of the furniture and floor.

Sea colors are also used to great effect in the costumes designed by Amanda Capshaw. Ms. Capshaw’s costumes are appropriate to the characters and establish personality without unduly calling attention to themselves. The only caveat is a very uneven hem on Ms. Schellenberg’s skirt that surely could be corrected. Lighting design by Steve Woods is appropriately moody and specific, guiding the audience’s eye with color, intensity and focus. Mr. Dubose also acts as Sound Designer for the show, and besides the sounds of ship’s horns, uses various Nordic musical compositions that are thoughtfully listed in the program. Properties Design by Linda Noland contribute to setting the period and location.

In reading an earlier translation of the play, I was struck by the overtly melodramatic language and situations, and wondered how the newer adaptation from Pam Gems might handle those linguistic problems. For the most part, Ms. Gems succeeds in making the language more palatable for modern audiences. At times, the situations and dialogue still ring a little heavy handed, but thanks to Director Blake Hackler and the skill of his cast, the script mostly remains gripping and fascinating. The play is really an ensemble piece with several characters holding the stage equally through many duet scenes, unusual for late Ibsen. Mr. Hackler moves his actors in the long, narrow space well, making all actions look motivated, and using the positions of his actors to include all the house as much as possible. His scenes build nicely, and the intentions of the characters are always clear. Moments are structured carefully and then taken effectively. Mr. Hackler is to be commended for taking a difficult play and making it absorbing and compelling for his audiences.

Find time in your schedule to experience this rare production by The Undermain Theatre of one of the lesser-known plays by this master. Ibsen’s very next play was Hedda Gabler, a much darker and more pessimistic story. Don’t miss The Lady from the Sea which John Harwood calls a “…rich, rare play in which Ibsen considers the possibility that we humans may, despite everything, pull through together after all.” Food for plenty of thought and discussion about choices, free will, and life’s ironies.

Undermain Theatre
3200 Main Street
Dallas, TX 75226

Tickets and more information at 214-747-5515 or

Final Performance December 2nd, 2018

Ticket Prices $20 - $30