Romantics struggle in Ibsen`s `Rosmersholm’

New York: A politician wins an election, and the opposition party becomes enraged, not just at losing power but at the even worse possibility that voters might start thinking for themselves. Sounds like recent current events — but it`s actually the politically repressed Norway of 1886 that Henrik Ibsen was writing about in his drama, ‘Rosmersholm.’

The Pearl Theatre Company has created a lively new production of Ibsen`s eloquent work, about a clash between emerging liberal politics versus entrenched conservative values, which is now performing off-Broadway at New York City Center.

As directed by Elinor Renfield, Mike Poulton`s adaptation has a lighter feel than the dark, Scandinavian gloom often associated with Ibsen. While retaining the psychologically confusing ending, Renfield has done her best to make ‘Rosmersholm’ seem accessible and comprehensible to a modern audience. Ibsen`s conflicted characters, and the disturbingly similar machinations of both parties, add richness to the political and personal landscapes.

Bradford Cover gives an upright, earnest, intellectual demeanor to Pastor Johannes Rosmer, on whom the past weighs heavily. His family has controlled the community around Rosmersholm, (the Roshmer house,) for several hundred years. Now Rosmer struggles to come to terms with his feelings of responsibility over the suicide a year earlier of his mentally ill wife, Beata, as well as the burden of carrying on the conservative family tradition and his recent abandonment of his religious faith.

Margot White gives a subtle, occasionally feisty performance as independent, ambitious free-thinker, Rebecca West, who was Beata`s companion and continues to live at Rosmersholm. She and Rosmer have come to believe they can change the world with humanistic politics, wanting to "give back to the people the right — the duty — to think and speak for themselves."

The role of Rebecca is a meaty part, and White quivers with underlying emotions in early scenes, hinting at Rebecca`s inner conflict yet keeping her terrible secrets until the explosive final scenes.

Austin Pendleton is almost comical at times as Doctor Kroll, Rosmer`s close friend and brother-in-law. Kroll fiercely embraces the reactionary conservative tradition of his community, at one point saying petulantly, "We`ve had enough of equality!" Pendleton becomes ferociously weaselly when his character switches gears, employing ruthless tactics and personal smears against his old friend in an attempt to keep his party in power.

Dominic Cuskern as a newly-redeemed, liberal newspaper editor and Dan Daily as a comically pompous, freeloading ex-tutor of Rosmer`s add outside voices to some scenes, which are all staged inside Rosmersholm.

The excellent Robin Leslie Brown is the loyal housekeeper, Mrs. Helseth, who sees a lot but rarely shares what she knows. Brown gives Mrs. Helseth a brisk, warm personality, as a servant who obviously cares for her master while also hiding secrets. Her comment to Rebecca about the difficulties of being a child at Rosmersholm is most chilling, "Children at Rosmersholm never cry and when they grow up they never laugh."

The elegant set by Harry Feiner is brightened with warm lighting by Stephen Petrilli, though it seems, despite the brightness, that Rebecca and Rosmer are trapped inside Rosmersholm by the force of its history and their own mistakes. In another modern parallel, this spirited production also clarifies their idealistic despair at the tremendous loss of civility in the outside world.

Bureau Report