- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 9, 2000

Theater of the First Amendment uses images and wordless sound, flowing together in an almost cinematic way, as it makes a bid for the audience in the opening moments of "The Lady From the Sea."
Brief moments of the past are illuminated for a few seconds — lovers meet and pledge themselves to each other, a sailor violently crumples a newspaper, a lighthouse beams its rays into the audience.
The rest of the play is no less compelling. Henrik Ibsen's drama, infrequently seen in this country, takes place in a town on the jagged Norwegian coast. Ellida Wangel (Laurena Mullins), the second wife of the town doctor, misses the sea where she grew up and considers the inlets around the local fiords a pale imitation. Her husband, Dr. Wangel (Bill Hamlin), tolerates her daily bathing trips to the shore but worries about her increasingly precarious state of mind.
Rightly so, because her fascination with the sea has deeper implications than mere homesickness. Ten years before, she promised herself to a sailor who was suspected of murder (Kyle Prue), and though she broke off from him, she still dreams of the day when he returns.
This obsession estranges her from Dr. Wangel, as well as the daughters from his first wife, Hilda (Taylor Coffman) and Bolette (Colleen Delany). Ellida becomes practically unhinged one day when the sailor, known only as the Stranger, suddenly appears to her, asking her to leave with him.
The subplot, involving the daughters, their former tutor Arnholm (Bradley Thoennes) and an aspiring artist named Lyngstrand (a charming Dwayne Nitz), is a bit more complex. Hilda likes to toy with Lyngstrand because he has lung disease and may die, which she thinks is exciting. Arnholm, a middle-aged man who once asked Ellida to marry him, desperately wants to find a wife before his age advances any further.
The translation by Ibsen scholar Brian Johnston, which makes its debut in this production, is unobtrusive, almost as if it were first written in English. The translation mostly avoids modern idioms, though there are occasional slips: I doubt anyone was using the word "relationship" to describe a romance in 1888, for instance.
Ibsen's vision of a woman transfixed by a past she cannot redeem is as haunting as he intended. He seems to be searching out an integrated philosophy about human behavior in the character of Ellida. Like the dark Norwegian waters, some people are "like the sea," governed by natural forces that they cannot control, but they still crave the freedom to make decisions unfettered by any obligations.
Ellida and Dr. Wangel's troubled marriage is mirrored in Arnholm's courtship of the dutiful older daughter, Bolette. In an affecting scene near the end of the play, the well-off Arnholm plays on Bolette's desire to escape her provincial surroundings by asking her if she wants to see the world and then asking her to marry him. He is afraid of being alone, she of not realizing her dreams; we are witnesses to the birth of a compromise marriage. Miss Delany flowers during this scene as she pours out Bolette's fears and half-suffocated hopes. Her transition from initial shock and rejection to slow acceptance is masterful, and her performance is the clear standout in the show.
Ibsen's feminist leanings, famously on display in "A Doll's House," come out in the conclusion. "Lady" has a surprisingly optimistic ending, when murder, suicide or betrayal would have been expected. The penultimate episode between the two daughters and their suitors is light and almost playful.
The understated set by Jason Rubin evokes the sea with a floor of turquoise glass and the Nordic foliage with a series of tall, thin, dark boards in the background. A sculpture of a fiord is suspended behind a blue scrim, a constant reminder of Ellida's pull toward the sea. An outstanding array of sounds buttresses the production, showing sound designer Mark K. Anduss' sensitivity to shifting moods.

WHAT: Theater of the First Amendment's production of "The Lady From the Sea"WHERE: George Mason University's Center for the Arts on the Fairfax campus, Braddock Road and Route 123
WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, through Sept. 30
TICKETS: $20 to $25
PHONE: 703/218-6500

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