When We Dead Awaken
The Philadelphia Story
Theatre in the Round
HENRIK IBSEN'S LAST play, written in 1899, has all the neo-Gothic trappings of that era: haunting figures from the past, the inevitable spa-sanatorium-mountains triad, and yes, lots of heavy melodrama. An artist, Rubek (Craig Morris), runs into his former model, Irene (Gail Hammerschmidt), a woman who's been leading a sort of undead-among-the-living existence since their separation. As Rubek becomes reacquainted with his long estranged, ghost-like muse, he realizes just what his safe but boring life with his practical wife, Maia, has been lacking: Irene's femme-fatale presence.
But trust Ibsen, champion of women's liberation in A Doll's House, to ultimately turn the spotlight on the equally bored wife and the used muse. We're all too familiar with the tale of the tortured artist and his need for both Madonna and whore, but in Ibsen's time, giving female figures a chance to break out of their one-dimensional stylistic prison was rare--especially for a male author. While Rubek's long-winded awakening comes to the yawning conclusion that "creating is not living," Irene is more concerned with earthier passions--namely, Rubek's betrayal of her. Other than references to his "stealing her soul" and leaving her for "dead," her complaint is not really made clear. Referring to Edgar Allan Poe's story of Ligeia, D.H. Lawrence observed that "each artist kills the thing he loves"; this outside interference is perhaps the closest we come to elucidation.
Meanwhile, Maia Rubek (Dawn Reed) makes her own emancipation proclamation and runs off with the local bear hunter. Robust and hearty as the Brawny paper towel man, he is the antithesis to Mrs. Rubek's emaciated and cerebral husband (and perhaps a precursor to Lawrence's gamekeeper in Lady Chatterley's Lover).
The first two acts have a fairly healthy balance of drama and humor, and there's enough of the classic Ibsen quality--deconstructing one thing, then in turn tearing down the deconstructor--to keep Fully Reciprocal's production moving along. But in the third act, which takes place on a stormy mountaintop, the (melo)drama crescendos from lightly scattered showers to fully submerged bathos. In hashing and rehashing their codependent/enabler relationship, Rubek and Irene are as pathetic as their modern-day counterparts on daytime talk shows. And they don't even have the blessed interference of an Oprah to edit their harangues. Irene pulls a dagger from her white satin Beverly Hills outfit (shades of Sharon Stone), but she doesn't even have the courtesy to use it. She is, unfortunately, more philosophical than Sharon Stone; she realizes it's no use killing Rubek because "he is already dead."
Here the volume of the drama reaches its peak, and thanks to the background noise of a waterfall, the actors are forced to raise their voices like patrons in a loud bar. Being close to the speakers, we enjoyed experiencing what it might be like to sit under Niagara Falls while watching the final thrashings of Ibsen's artistic exit from the 19th century. In earlier plays, Ibsen dissected the capitalist, the conformist, and even the idealist with a surgeon's precision, but when the subject matter became too self-referential, he finally fumbled. From a contemporary vantage point, the choices Irene and Maia make would be seen as cop-outs, but in the 19th century, to be able to make a choice at all was radical. Poor Ibsen: It is said that he was fated to be misunderstood by two centuries--too revolutionary for the 19th and too conservative for the 20th.
The acting in this play is afflicted by a similar problem. With the admission that the uptight Scandinavian à la Bergman is not an easy role, here it's played between near-paralysis and epileptic release. (Dawn Reed shines as the notable exception, with the correct, stirred-not-shaken balance of restraint and emotion.) But it is worth noting that this was opening night and one of the lead roles had to be filled at short notice. The sets, costumes, and accompanying music of Grieg do evoke the twilight atmosphere of the era, and with such apt technical handling, there's still a chance for this play to find its balance.
For a theatrical antidote with a similar theme but a happier ending, catch Theatre in the Round's The Philadelphia Story, in which the wealthy young Tracy Lord (Courtney Peterson) struggles for independence among seemingly greater odds. Variously packaged and labeled as a virgin goddess, a bronze statue, and a spinster at heart (by her father, ex-husband, and fiancé), Tracy eventually discovers--through the ever-transcendent mix of inebriation and sin--that she is simply "a human being" (obvious to us, but perhaps more difficult for the wealthy classes to grasp). Though Tracy's savior is technically not herself, but her ever-watchful and charming ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Bill Williamson), this is easier to swallow given the alternative of her aggressively uninteresting fiancé. Phillip Barry's classically witty script, graced by all-around strong performances, make this a feel-good show with a nice cynical bite.