Sunday, January 25, 2009

Blog Exclusive Review: The Wild Duck, performed by Court Theatre at the Museum of Contemporary Art

Charles Newell's production of Richard Nelson's new translation of Henrik Ibsen's play.


A man without self-knowledge is dangerous--he can destroy the lives of those around him without even realizing it. This, it seems to me, is the real tragedy of Henrik Ibsen's The Wild Duck. The play is frequently described as a parable of the dangers of meddling in other people's lives. The true destruction comes from men who does not understand themselves and therefore hurt those closest to them. Charles Newell's production makes this tragedy clear on an intellectual level, but fails to make it emotionally compelling until the last half hour.

Hialmar Ekdal (Kevin Gudahl) lives a quiet, happy life as a photographer, with wife Gina (Mary Beth Fisher) and daughter Hedvig (Laura Scheinbaum). (Full disclosure: Scheinbaum is a college friend of mine.) He believes himself a brilliant, hard-working man, and sees no flaw in his family life. That comes crashing down due to the well-meaning interference of his old friend, Gregers Werle (Jay Whittaker). Gregers sees the influence of his hated father (John Reeger) in Hialmar's life, and believes that revealing the truth as he sees it will make Hialmar's life infinitely better. Werle fails to reckon with the power of delusions, both Hialmar's and his own. The consequences are tragic for all concerned.

Newell's production is always clear--there is no confusion over who the characters are and what they want, as can be endemic to productions of classics. Unfortunately, it takes until the last half hour or so for the play to have a real sense of urgency, or for the audience to have an emotional investment in the lives of the characters. Once that comes, however, it is powerful. Much credit for this goes to Scheinbaum--her tantrum faced with the incomprehensible fact of her father's sudden cruelty to her is absolutely wrenching.

Newell has coaxed vibrant performances from the rest of his cast as well. Gudahl was somehow both lovable and contemptible as the supremely deluded Hialmar, with Fisher providing most of the evenings few laughs as a woman desperately trying to keep her life together. And Whittaker provided a memorable portrayal of a man desperately uncomfortable in his own skin: his actions seemed almost reasonable, since he believed they would bring him peace.

It's not clear quite why the production fails to engage until midway through the second half. Perhaps the pace is too slow, perhaps the drama gets lost inside Leigh Breslau's cavernous loft of a set. Maybe the cast doesn't fully understand how high the stakes are, even from the beginning. However, once the world begins to fall apart, it's hard to shake off the tragic sense of lives undone.

The Wild Duck runs at The Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 East Chicago Avenue, through February 15th. For tickets/information, visit or call (773) 753-4472.

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