The Wild Duck
At the Court Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—Beware of do-gooding idealists, for they are destroyers. That’s the message of Henrik Ibsen’s talky but ultimately absorbing 1884 drama “The Wild Duck,” now receiving a resourceful staging by the Court Theatre at its alternate venue at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
“The Wild Duck” tells how a young man named Gregers Werle wreaks havoc on the peace of mind of his friend Hialmar Ekdal by informing him that his marriage is a lie and Ekdal’s beloved daughter Hedvig likely isn’t his child. Werle makes this disclosure so that Ekdal and his wife and child can launch a new life built on truth instead of illusion. The predictable result is disaster because Werle is a smug, feckless man who can’t handle the truth.
The wild duck of the title is a pet bird Hedvig nurtures in the loft of her father’s photography studio. The bird carries enough symbolic baggage to keep graduate students in dissertation material for an academic lifetime. The play itself may have autobiographical overtones. Some scholars see the drama as Ibsen’s send-up of his earlier plays that attempted to drive home some unpleasant but necessary truths about the false illusions, or delusions, that sustained society.
Whatever his motives, Ibsen created a provocative drama in “The Wild Duck” (with a surprising number of laughs, especially in the last two acts). The core character is the meddling Werle, a man consumed with self-hatred and guilt who refuses to realize that the weak and self-indulgent Ekdal needs illusions to get through life.
The Court revival uses a colloquial adaptation and translation by American playwright Richard Nelson. Nelson’s script holds the stage well but can’t disguise the talkiness of the opening three acts, condensed into one long act in this production. During the first 75 minutes, we meet the play’s large cast of characters but there isn’t much action, the plot’s meaningful events having transpired before the play begins.
In the final two acts, after the single intermission, the production raises the dramatic temperature considerably. That’s when Werle explodes Ekdal’s complacent world by informing him that Werle’s father is likely Hedvig’s real father conceived while Ekdal’s wife Gina was the father’s mistress. Ekdal dissolves into an orgy of self-pity and melodramatic outrage, rejecting his daughter and wife and thus precipitating the play’s tragic climax.
The conflict between reality and illusion is not an uncommon theme in modern drama. The best example in American theater is Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,” where the traveling salesman Hickey dismembers the illusion-drenched world of a saloon full of down and outers by inflicting his harsh brand of truth and reality.
“The Wild Duck” doesn’t provide a level playing field for a philosophic debate on truth versus illusion because Werle and Ekdal are both so dysfunctional. Werle is a neurotic, using his truth crusade to mollify his own demons. Werle is psychologically incapable of dealing with any “truths” that disturb the pampered comfort of his domestic life.
So the play won’t send the audience out into the night with their minds and emotions churning over issues the play raises. But the drama still offers a gallery of interesting characters and the patient spectator should be gripped by the play’s final 30 minutes.
The Court production, under Charles Newell’s directing, has gathered a blue ribbon ensemble of local actors, led by Jay Whittaker as Werle, who resembles a tormented hero out of a Dostoevsky novel, and Kevin Gudahl as Ekdal. Mary Beth Fisher is terrific as Ekdal’s practical and street-smart wife Gina, the real glue that holds the family together until Werle intrudes with his mischief.
It’s been a pleasure watching Laura Scheinbaum mature from a cute child actress in Highland Park into a major adult talent. Scheinbaum delivers a break-out performance as the affectionate Hedvig, the 14 year-old girl forced into martyrdom by her father’s inexplicable rejection.
Timothy Edward Kane is very strong in his few scenes as Doctor Relling, the boozing but hardheaded spokesman for common sense and presumably Ibsen’s mouthpiece. Maury Cooper is first rate as Werle’s doddering old father, a performance that deftly melds comedy and pathos. There are also major contributions by John Reeger as Werle’s father, Johanna McKenzie Miller as the father’s current mistress, and Rob Lindley, Henry Odum, and Eddie Bennett in cameo roles.
Most of the action takes place is Ekdal’s apartment/studio, a marvelous cavernous multi-level space created by set designer Leigh Breslau. Jacqueline Firkins designed the late nineteenth century period costumes. Andre Pluess designed the sound and Jennifer Tipton the lighting.
“The Wild Duck” runs through February 15 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 East Chicago Avenue. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $32 to $60. Call 773 753 4472 or visit www.CourtTheatre.org.
The show gets a rating of 3½ stars. January 2009
Contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org