One should not own anything that binds one to earth. Go out on the stony highways and wander with bleeding feet, for that way leads upwards….”—Eleanora Heyst in August Strindberg’s Easter
Undermain Theatre’s production of Easter floats up from the chill depths of the North Sea, a timeless, many-chambered nautilus, luminescent with otherworldly imagination and mystical redemption….
Like many college theatre majors, I acted in scenes from August Strindberg’s famous play about class war and emancipated women, Miss Julie. I respected Strindberg as “the father of modern drama” but found the relentless vulgarity of his Miss Julie characters repellant. The play’s level of violence and Strindberg’s explosively seething hatred of the New Woman horrified me. Consequently, when I discovered his 1901 mystical play Easter, full of ethereal religious symbolism with a fragile, saintly heroine as its catalyst, he took me by surprise. The antithesis of Miss Julie, Easter creates a delicate dream world of love and compassion. Its three acts take place on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter eve. It examines themes of suffering and transcendence through forgiveness, as portrayed by events in the lives of the Heyst family, shamed and tortured by family disgrace. I read the play over and over, enchanted by how spiritually uplifted and energized its final scene of redemption and illumination rendered me. I have waited three decades to witness this play performed.
In her revelatory nuts and bolts explique of the genesis of modern drama, Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov, Adler remarks, “What the modern play gives you, first of all, is place.” Place matters integrally in Easter: physical proximity of its characters and their relational “place”, each character’s sense of place in society, their sense of spiritual place, how time and sound affect perception of place, and self-awareness in regard to place. Place experienced as both an outer and inner realm, private v. public, safe v. threatened, earthly v. heavenly, temporal v. eternal.
Undermain Theatre’s Easter, running through May 14 in its Deep Ellum subterranean catacomb, explores every aspect of the play’s place in meticulous, tangible detail. John Arnone’s shotgun-style thrust set, with solid wood-framed doorways and translucent scrim walls, defines layers of inner sanctum and outer realm in concert with Steve Woods’ tender glowing light and shadow play in illumination. A tactile reality, with everyday tables and chairs and legal briefs and newspapers and chiming mantel clocks, presents itself with intentional clarity, yet a grander scheme, a wider universe beyond and beneath, seems to emanate from the walls and floor, the very air the family breathes, with grace-filled resonance. The play’s presumed villain, the creditor Lindquist, comments,
“Every thought and every action has its echo.” Every element of set, light and sound in this production illustrates this concept, in poetic compliment to the play’s ephemeral delineation of place. Strindberg dabbled in the occult and became less interested in plot than symbol as he matured, a proponent of experimental “Intimate” Symbolist theatre. Modern audiences seeking accustomed episodic plotlines may need to take a few deep breaths and ground themselves, adjust their perceptual expectations of the performance to the paradigm Strindberg set out to create. Imagine stepping into an elevator expecting a confined, dark shaft and a bumping ride up, instead finding one’s self floating upwards in an open hot air balloon into a cloudless expanse of bright blue sky.
Not all Undermain’s production elements work as effectively as do the set, light and sound design. It’s hard to grasp the relationship nature of the couple in the play’s opening scene, so integral to setting the play’s mood and tone. Shannon Kearns-Simmons and David Goodwin play a sober, engaged couple overwhelmed with financial cares. The declamatory, flat nature of their vocal delivery creates a distance between them that seems less about characterization than about “speaking up to be heard clearly.” Kearns-Simmons warms into her role as the play progresses, adding human dimension; but Goodwin’s portrayal remains loud, sullen and petulant across the play’s arc. His character seems to undergo scant transformation. He gives the audience nothing to empathize with and reveals little to justify the position of respect and devotion he has earned in his family’s esteem, as written. In contrast, Dan Schmoker and Fiona Robberson present multi-faceted, emotionally accessible characters as the play’s young innocents, Benjamin and Eleanora. Robberson enchants as indeterminately clairvoyant or mentally unbalanced, the Heyst daughter returned home from an asylum. She could be played as a hokey sleepwalker, or stereotypically “demented” with ghostly whisper. As the voice and agent of the play’s main theme, redemption, she must come across more real than anyone else on stage. Director Katherine Owens helps Booker T. Washington student Robberson find simple, natural rhythms and nuanced expression beyond what might be expected to emerge from a high school age actor’s skill-set. The spirited tenderness with which she treats the vulnerable Benjamin and her conviction in spiritual belief read as entirely genuine.
Laura Jorgensen offers a stern, icy cold performance as the deeply angst-ridden Fru Heyst, revealed most tellingly when she drifts wraith-like behind the dim-lit scrim. Bruce DuBose brings hearty color with red-blooded veracity to the play’s chill in its final transformation scene, as the creditor seen often in silhouetted caricature throughout the show. Dialogue refers frequently to the swishing sound his galoshes make; yet oddly Undermain has incorporated more of a grinding noise to indicate his approach or passing nearby. Giva Taylor’s period costumes work their usual magic in reinforcement and enhancement of character, mood and ambience.
Like an exceedingly rare liqueur, Undermain Theatre’s production of Strindberg’s Easter won’t please all tastes, particularly if one anticipates the playwright’s agitated, combative voice. Floating up out of the Nordic depths, the play offers a surprising expression of spiritual transformation that can please the senses while warming a world-weary soul.
Through May 14, 2011 www.undermain.org