After watching Moya O’Connell blow her brains out as Shaw Festival’s Hedda Gabler back in 2012, it is a pleasant contrast to see her in the role of Henrik Ibsen’s Ellida Wangel in Erin Shields’ new version of The Lady from the Sea, directed by Meg Roe.
Though Ellida remains under the category of Ibsen’s independent yet freedom-deprived heroines, she is a stand-out character among Ibsen’s other female protagonists, for her undeniable honesty and, of course, the fact that she doesn’t leave her husband and children by the end of the play. As one of the last written plays of Ibsen’s career, this ending may be just as surprising as a bullet to the head.
Ibsen’s powerhouse script, along with Shields’ modern touches, makes this production positively enthralling.
The play opens with an impressive, forcible moment, when the audience is introduced to a tormented and nude Ellida perched mermaid-like on the rock by the waterside, out of breath and out of her mind, as waves crash around her.
The play follows Ellida and her struggle as the second wife of Dr. Wangel (Ric Reid) and the stepmother to two young women, Hilde (Darcy Gerhart) and Bolette (Jacqueline Thair) – one who is not much older than she is. While the Wangels step on eggshells trying to keep their real feelings and secrets hidden from Ellida, she doesn’t entirely notice. She thinks she is in love with another man – a perfect stranger. And no matter how hard she tries to move on, she cannot deny the fact that he continues to torment her soul.
O’Connell carries out the dynamic potential of her character from the opening scene to the closing scene, as she stands with her family, red-faced and teary-eyed as The Stranger’s (Mark Uhre) ship takes off into the distance for the last time.
The rest of the cast follows with undeniably engaging scenes, with notable performances by Thair and Gerhart, who are effective in continuing to highlight Ibsen’s portrayal of the independent woman’s struggle. Bolette must first rely on her father and then consider marrying a man she does not love in order to continue her education, and Hilde, though rarely affable, is constantly pushed to the side and lives in Bolette’s shadow.
However, when considering the buildup of the entire play, the long-awaited entrance of The Stranger seems rather anti-climactic in comparison to the other scenes. He seems to be too monotonous and abrasive to be the mysterious, compelling character we imagine him to be.
The set design by Camellia Koo is not over-the-top. It doesn’t change. It is one side of the cliff of the fjord where the characters often look out into the sea. It is a symbol of Ellida’s past and present simultaneously – her attempt to forget her past and “acclimatize” to her new family.
All in all, The Lady from the Sea is a riveting rendition of Ibsen’s original work. The Shaw Festival does a wonderful job at dragging Ibsen’s mystical mermaid onto the land and having her wrestle with her new life for all to see.
The Lady from the Sea plays at The Shaw Festival’s Court House Theatre until Sept. 13. For more information visit www.shawfest.com.