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"The Lady From the Sea", Duse's Famous Vehicle, Strains the Tyros to Their Limit
"The first professional performance in Boston of Ibsen's 'The Lady from the Sea'" is the boast of the Repertory Theatre for the present fortnight. Duse delighted in the role of Ellida, the lady from the sea. It required every lota of her energy and that of her company to carry the emotional strain which the playwright puts upon his puppets. And now Repertory advertises a professional performance.
When the public goes to a repertory theatre it knows what it's in for, and it shouldn't squeal. If it gets more than its money's worth, it goes home in a pink haze of pleasure. If it achieves no more than a notion of the excellence of a great play, the price of admission may be written on its budget as Educational.
"The Lady from the Sea" is an education. It is a superb example of the ability of a playwright to shatter his play into two score small scenes, almost all dialogues, without breaking the emotional thread. From the first rise of the curtain, which reveals color disharmony rampant, to the last discordant blast of the steamer's whistle which closes the play, there is a jangling, an oppressive sultriness which distinguishes the play.
By lights and by sets the Repertory has sought its effects, and the scene designers have succeeded where the actors fail. The lighting, changing as the moods of the players change, contributes immensely to the illusion of professionalism. It remains for the actors to destroy the illusion.
Among the men there is great deference paid to the orotund school of elocution of which Mr. Jewett is past master Dr. Wangel, the husband of the lady from the sea, alone succeeds in dodging the grand manner and that only on occasion. Jewett, as the Stranger who threatens the Wangels' domesticity, is as pompous and unconvincing of the hollow, haunting eye, as a Falstaff. Professor Arnholm is often a pint-size Jewett, but no matter, the focus is rarely upon him.
It is upon Ellida Wangel, the Lady from the Sea, that the unforgiving light of Ibson's querying is focused. And it is upon her that the whole burden of the play must fall. The unfolding of the story which is in reality an unfolding of her mind, a mind wedded to the sea, is a rapid matter, swift, sure and inevitable up to the very close. A Duse alone could maintain the tempo, with no waste gestures, no amateur hysterics which might interrupt the play's relentlessness. Two weeks of rehearsal of such a part sound farewal. Yet that is all the preparation. It is to be supposed, that Huth Taylor must have had.
Of course she was not superlative. Her great height is against her. Her voice is not satisfying. It carries well, but needs only the slightest strain to make it harsh, unreal. Her features are not mobile, so that she is reduced to great reality without losing the overtones of dependence upon bodily gesture. Above all, she is faced with the task of interrupting allegory, giving it the ring of fantasy. That she is in any way sufficient to the task is remarkable. Yet she shows an understanding of the part which is admirable and there is never a moment when she does not exert herself to lend the play all her energy. She is running a race, in which her eye must not lose sight of the goal, but a race in which form, stride, and ability to take frequent hurdles are judged as heavily as the end reached. On Monday night she brought the part as near reality as time, practice and personality would permit. A few more performances will see her satisfying those who want a vivid reading of the play. More than a reading of "The Lady from the Sea" cannot be hoped for on the Repertory stage.
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