June 03, 1999




at the Black Swan


Reviewed by Rob Kendt


What to make of Ibsen's late, not-great Rosmersholm? Nestled somewhere between the masterpieces The Wild Duck and Hedda Gabler in the Norwegian playwright's ouevre, this equivocal drama about a pastor trying to abandon his faith for a life in politics but thwarted by typical Ibsenian bugaboos--pyschological blackmail, voices from beyond the grave, subconscious inner demons and their reliable enabler, social repression--is a strange, lopsided bird indeed. Here the worlds of the personal and the political are not so much intertwined as incestuously entangled, to the confounding of each.


In his new translation and staging for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Jerry Turner successfully mines the play's strengths--sharply drawn supporting characters and an overall tone of queasy but unshakable mourning--and does his level best with a pair of lead characters, Rosmer and his platonic live-in comrade Rebecca West, who seem to have lived a few plays before curtain but who, in the perversely circumscribed confines of Rosmersholm, barely get a chance to play out a new one. The effect is at once both gripping and maddening.


Ibsen hooks us from the start: Something is rotten in the estate of Rosmersholm, where the late Mrs. Rosmer has been dead by own her hand for a year and a half now. Her widower, Pastor Rosmer (Anthony Heald), is at last ready to reenter public life, this time on behalf of a newly emboldened progressive cause in Norway. As Rosmer feared, though, his stiff-necked, reactionary brother-in-law, Rector Kroll (Richard Farrell), takes this political "apostasy" very personally. It's not long before Rosmer's vague liberal ideals--dreamy visions of a bloodless, civilized revolution of the "mind"--are tested by the maneuverings of both Kroll and the muckraking radical newspaperman Mortensgard (Bill Geisslinger), which in turn prompt a wide load of personal revelations relating to his late wife and his current companion, Rebecca (Robin Goodrin Nordli).


Indeed, the second act's torrent of accusations and confessions becomes ludicrous, as Rebecca, Kroll, even the businesslike housekeeper Mrs. Helseth (Eileen DeSandre) unburden themselves of secrets too long kept from the increasingly bewildered and demoralized Rosmer.


Heald handles Rosmer's difficult arc--from fragile hope to dread and resignation--remarkably well, capturing perfectly Rosmer's wishful sleepwalker's blindness to human nature, especially his own. And together he and Nordli effortlessly suggest the would-be innocent filial bond of two blighted idealists. But Nordli, whose solution to the problem of Act Two's endless confession is to arrive, methodically and movingly, at a point of total emotional abandon, nevertheless exudes unflappable goodness from every pore, which nips and tucks a few of her character's thornier complications. (The way Nordli plays Rebecca's most pivotal second-act self-revelation, I actually thought for a while that she wanted us to think Rebecca is lying--selflessly shouldering blame for a past crime to free a loved one of his guilty feelings.)


That said, it's worth wondering how much more deeply Rebecca's, or Rosmersholm's, complications really ought to be plumbed--whether these unexplored "complications" are merely confused stabs at psychological and social themes Ibsen addressed more satisfyingly elsewhere. But it's hard to imagine a more pointed or streamlined production than Turner's, in which each conversation unfolds as a perilous negotiation and the pauses have the momentous solitude and quiet of a dream. Likewise, Richard L. Hay's set and Robert Jared's lights give the small Black Swan stage a sepulchral stillness, and Todd Barton's music is as anguished and halting as poor, unknowing Pastor Rosmer.


"Rosmersholm," presented by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival at the Black Swan, 15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland, Ore. Apr. 3-Oct. 31. (541) 482-4331.