Had Henrik Ibsen been an interior designer rather than a 19th-century playwright, he would have come up with some pretty outlandish floor plans. No house in an Ibsen play comes without walls that contract, or a ceiling that’s more like a sky pressing in. So says the title character in David Eldridge’s adaptation of the 1896 Ibsen drama, John Gabriel Borkman: “There is nothing to be gained by withering here in misery and contrition,” Borkman admonishes his son Erhart, as the son looks for his own escape hatch.
A new production at Aurora Theatre stays so true to Ibsen’s sensibility that everything about it spells doom. Astutely directed by Barbara Oliver, the play is dismal and difficult, partly because it trades exposition for action, and partly because it’s hard not to get depressed by the subject matter. Yet it’s also incredibly faithful to the source material — in spirit, if not line-for-line. We spend most of this in a cloistered two-floor house. Downstairs lies the drawing room, ruled by Mrs. Gunhild Borkman (Karen Grassle), a stuffy Victorian matron who nails everything in its proper place. Thus, she has an assortment of hard-backed chairs, a round table, and a sofa, all protected by cushions or antimacassars. An oil lamp sits primly on the nightstand. The play opens with Gunhild knitting alone at her sofa. She sighs, crinkles her brow, and looks about quizzically. Her face has the texture of crumpled paper; her marble-gray eyes seem listless and empty. Behind her is the “upstairs,” where a man — rather, a coat in the shape of a man — slouches over a desk.
The man is Borkman, played brilliantly by actor James Carpenter. He’s a banker who’s fallen from grace after years of embezzling his clients’ fortunes. In the script, Borkman makes at least one self-ironic reference to his Napoleonic complex, but the contemporary resonances are also obvious. He apparently made one misstep too many, wound up in prison, and soiled his family name. Borkman returned home eighteen years prior to the play’s opening and sequestered himself in the second-floor garret. Architecturally, it’s a perfect representation of wounded masculinity. The upstairs is cramped and dusky, framed by a large arched window that seems to blot out all the light. It’s set at the back of the stage, so Borkman hovers quietly in the background while Gunhild talks about him in the foreground. She refers to him as “the man upstairs,” “the bank director,” “he,” “John Gabriel Borkman,” or “a sick wolf in a cage,” but never as “my husband.” In subsequent scenes he’ll do the same thing, referring to an ominous “she,” or an unnamed female oppressor downstairs.
Ibsen must have known how he’d be perceived by future generations — not only as a critic of Victorian mores, but as a writer with particularly grim views on gender and relationships. In Borkman, the women smother their young and victimize their husbands. Even their love is toxic: Young Erhart (Aaron Wilton) describes the atmosphere in his mother’s home as one of “sickly adoration.” Twin sisters Gunhild and Ella Rentheim (Karen Lewis) jockey for Borkman’s affection, then battle for custody of Erhart. Young violinist Frida Foldal (Lizzie Calogero) manipulates and betrays her father Vilhelm (Jack Powell). A fashionable divorcée named Mrs. Fanny Wilton (Pamela Gaye Walker) ultimately seduces both Erhart and Frida, and uses them for her own ends. The play is ostensibly about a man’s hubris, but it’s really about a man who resists the clutches of one woman, only to be trapped by another. Ella and Gunhild both wear drab dowager uniforms of gray and black, while Mrs. Wilton sports a ruffly peach frock that looks like a prom dress. In reality, they’re variations of the same predator.
Such themes make for excellent drama, but Borkman presents several challenges for a modern theater company. It has to move forward, even though most of the action took place eight years earlier. The environment has to seem claustrophobic and unpleasant, but not stall the plot. And the actors have to be good enough to carry a script that’s virtually all dialogue, especially during the first half. That’s a tall order, even for performers of this caliber. Carpenter is the most engrossing presence. He seems to get more handsome with age, and resembles a young, regal banker even in the rumpled clothes of John Gabriel Borkman — there’s no mistaking those high, narrow cheekbones or that perfect triangle nose. Lewis wanes a bit, particularly in scenes that require her to fake-cry over a love affair gone sour. Grassle seems better cast as a beleaguered matron than as a drawing-room despot. Still, the fights that erupt in the second act — particularly after Mrs. Wilton enters the fray — are quite satisfying.
Of course the best part is the snow. It falls from a mechanical device in the ceiling, which doesn’t come on until the end of the second act. At last Sunday’s performance, though, snowflakes were coming loose and falling throughout the play, which gave the impression of a snowstorm brewing in Borkman’s house. That was probably an accident. It still made a nice touch.