If Rosmersholm isn’t the first play that comes to mind when someone mentions Henrik Ibsen, it’s still undeniably by the Norwegian master, and fans will want to see the Pearl Theatre’s first-rate production of this unusual, frequently melodramatic, play. Ibsen’s great works—The Master Builder, A Doll’s House, An Enemy of the People, The Wild Duck—aren’t walks in the park, but they continually feel vital. If Rosmersholm is not in their league, it still has a strong pulse. As usual, Ibsen winds his plot tightly. Johannes Rosmer (Bradford Cover), scion of an aristocratic family, has returned to his estate on the outskirts of a city after a period away following the suicide of his wife, Beata. Staying with him is his foster daughter, Rebecca West (Margot White). His late wife’s brother, Doctor Kroll, pays a visit to persuade Rosmer to join his political party, which recently lost elections to a liberal faction. Kroll is a reactionary who believes that the liberals will ruin the country and must be stopped.
But Rosmer, a former pastor, has undergone a conversion and renounces his aristocratic heritage. “One day I simply admitted it to myself—everything that had been handed down to me—through generation upon generation—was pernicious worthless deception,” he tells Kroll. The patrician now sympathizes with the common man: “I want to ennoble them…By not presuming to tell them what they must think—how they must act. By letting them find their own way to what is true and good.” Kroll is incensed. There are more than a few echoes of 21st-century culture wars in the conflict between Kroll and Rosmer, and they enliven the best parts of Rosmersholm.
It’s one of the marvelous ironies of Ibsen that Kroll’s political rival, the more phlegmatic Peder Mortensgaard (Dominic Cuskern), is equally appalled. Expecting to cash in on Rosmer’s support as a pillar of society, he quickly backtracks when he learns Rosmer has renounced Christianity. “Nobody will give you the time of day if they think you’d turned against the Church,” Mortensgaard says. “They’re all good church-going folk out there. What our movement needs is converts—Church leaders who’ve come round to our way of thinking—men the people respect.”
The parallels in Rosmersholm to the current venomous political climate must surely have drawn director Elinor Renfield to the play, and she’s responded with a well considered production. And veteran Austin Pendleton, making a guest appearance with the Pearl as Kroll, can recognize a juicy part. Apart from some occasional tentativeness on his lines in preview, he makes Kroll a smarmy, self-righteous and baleful figure whose mantra is “who is not with me is against me.”
A brief subplot underlines the liberal vs. conservative clash, as Dan Daily puts in a delightful appearance as Ulrik Brendel, a penniless New Age visionary (dressed deftly in shabby clothes, dirty boots, purple vest, suspenders and a gray, long-haired wig by Niki Hernandez-Adams) who cadges money from Rosmer like a Norwegian Micawber. Rounding out the cast of six is the superstitious housekeeper Mrs. Helseth (Robin Leslie Brown), who yammers on about a white horse in local legend that is the harbinger of death. That white horse is a symptom of the common folks’ superstitions that would probably undermine Rosmer’s hopes for their self-determination.
The melodrama intermittently present in the first half of the play takes over in the second half. (In fact, the late Charles Ludlam wickedly parodied the play’s first scene in The Mystery of Irma Vep for the Ridiculous Theatrical Company.) From Kroll and Mortensgaard’s visits, Rosmer learns that Beata conceived a notion that he and West were having an affair. As she was slowly going insane (possibly from guilt that she was barren), Beata confided her worries to her brother, and in a letter to Mortensgaard implored him not to listen to unfounded rumors about immorality at Rosmersholm.
As Ibsen slowly unveils this melodramatic machinery, West takes center stage, and the plot overheats. It’s not the fault of White, who has the confident deportment of the New Woman of the period and vividly shows her character’s lively mind and opinions, along with a cold calculation. But Cover’s Rosmer, initially a solid, decent man, suddenly seems excessively dewy-eyed, full of scholarly learning but less common sense. Indeed, Harry Feiner’s dappled white backdrop design suggests a bank of clouds wherein Rosmersholm floats, its master’s head figuratively in the clouds.
Rosmer doesn’t see the twists in the plot coming as quickly as an audience member will, although the climax remains a surprise, even if it’s weakened by implausibility. Still, Ibsen completists will want to seize the chance to glimpse this rarity as if it were Halley’s comet coming round for a visit.