There is delightful irony in Jane Alexander’s return to Washington as Ibsen’s tragic Mrs. Alving — a role in which she gets to chide a prudish arts critic in act one. No doubt she would have relished the same lines during her last performance here as chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, playing opposite Sen. Jesse Helms. This production is directed and radically adapted by her husband, Edwin Sherin, whom she met in 1967 while at D.C.’s Arena Stage playing in “The Great White Hope” with James Earl Jones.
Sherin has made the 19th century morality drama more contemporary by relocating it to an island off the coast of Maine in 1981, precisely one century later. The troubled son, Oswald, is home suffering not from syphilis but from an unknown immune disorder later to be called AIDS. Instead of authoring provocative books, he paints large-scale frontal nudity in garish portraits that dominate Walt Spangler’s modern beachhouse set. In a more curious departure, Sherin also has made the character bisexual.
Other changes include a racial twist, with illegitimate child Gina the product of the late husband’s affair with an African-American housekeeper. Also, the names have been Americanized and large amounts of dialogue have been cut.
What Sherin has sought to retain, clearly, is the original’s angst, guilt and loathing as the sins of a philandering father are relentlessly revisited, while liberating them from the constricting mores of 1880s Norway. The play runs less than two hours, including a 20-minute second act.
Overall, it is an intriguing adaptation that occasionally delivers. We can empathize with the plight of Oswald, sensitively played by Alexander Pascal, who has been perpetually shunted to boarding schools by his bitter mother. As the illness takes hold and his world disintegrates, the character’s unfulfilled life and inherited shortcomings are systematically revealed until the final climactic scene.
Another plus is Andre De Shields’ astute performance as the opportunistic carpenter. With his bothersome limp and determined stare, De Shields is every inch the lonely schemer. By contrast, Noel True is less convincing as the illegitimate daughter, a more difficult role that requires her to be both plotting temptress and impetuous child.
As for Alexander, she’s an excessively muted and distant Mrs. Alving, one who rises to emotion only when dueling with the prudish minister, Franklin Manders, (played with slightly less restraint by Ted Van Griethuysen) and when confronting her son’s tortured demise. It is a capable but not engrossing performance.
The larger question is whether the play’s essential premise can effectively transition to modern-day America. While people still choose to suffer bad marriages, Sherin wants us to believe that this free-thinking woman, who rails so articulately about the hypocrisies around her, would succumb to self-imprisonment simply to follow society’s conventions. Clearly she wasn’t watching “Donahue.”