Henrik Ibsen has not aged well. In the late 19th century, this Norwegian playwright blazed new ground with the naturalism of his style and his audacity in exposing the hypocrisy of middle-class family life.
But watching his plays today, I'm struck by how contrived his characters are. They behave more like symbols than people, and are so uncompromising in their beliefs that it's impossible to identify with any of them.
That's the problem with The Wild Duck, the 1884 drama considered Ibsen's masterpiece by many people (including Ibsen himself). TheatreWorks brought in a top-notch cast for its production, but even these actors can't humanize their characters, or provide plausible motivations for their actions. It doesn't help that director Murray Ross sets a sluggish pace, with the opening night show clocking in a half-hour longer than its advertised 2½-hour running time.
Speaking generally, the play poses an intriguing dilemma: If you learned that a friend's daughter is actually your father's child, would you tell your friend? Most of us would exert at least a few brain cells wrestling with this question, but for Gregers Werle, there is only one possible answer: Yes, and as soon as possible.
Jon Barker imbues Gregers with a nervous energy, making him quick to lecture anyone within earshot about his precious ideals, but increasingly bewildered as his truth-telling catalyzes a tragic chain of events.
"Don't use that foreign word, 'ideals,'" his friend Relling scolds. "Use a good Norwegian word, 'lies.'"
Hjalmar Ekdal is the friend with the daughter. A struggling photographer, Hjalmar harbors his own delusions, convincing himself that his financial troubles will be solved once he completes the unnamed invention he's working on.
Philip Guerette neatly physicalizes the emotional disintegration of the man, but Hjalmar's all-too-swift rejection of his 14-year-old daughter Hedwig (an earnest Eleanor Sturt) seems like an absurd overreaction and squashes any empathy we may have had for him.
Sol Chavez adds some humor as Old Ekdal, a once-successful businessman reduced to a doddering existence in a back room of Hjalmar's apartment. He spends much of his time hunting rabbits in the loft, and it is here that Hedwig keeps a wounded duck as a pet, which for some reason Hjalmar longs to strangle.
With its gray wood floor and sloping wall of windows, Russell Parkman's set is appropriately dark and brooding. And Betty Ross does a nice job with the costumes, putting Hedwig in a bluebird-colored dress that seems like a breath of spring against the drab browns and blacks of the rest of the cast.
The play finally picks up momentum toward the end, and anyone familiar with Chekhov's Law knows that before the play is over, someone's going to get hurt; the only question is who. That question is answered in a shocking, gut-wrenching way. But even here, the final act of self-sacrifice makes little sense in light of what came before.