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The Pearl Theatre Company breathes new life in Henrik Ibsen's lesser-known drama. logo
Margot White and Bradford Cover in Rosmersholm
(© Gregory Costanzo)
New York's venerable Pearl Theatre Company helps breathe new life into Henrik Ibsen's Rosmersholm, now at New York City Center Stage II. Ibsen's tale of the death of idealism in a stately 19th-century house is less well known than some of his other titles, and the work teeters into melodrama in the second half. But this domestic tragedy about the collision of utopian ideas and political realities, following a progressive government takeover in 1880s Norway, includes timeless elements that could have been written today.

The Pearl's production -- directed by Elinor Renfield -- accentuates these ties by using a faithful yet provocative adaptation by Mike Poulton, who sharpens the edges of some political dialogue in the play. He also emphasizes the frustrated (and, to others, frustrating) optimism with which Ibsen infuses his heroes -- Johannes Rosmer (played with beautiful clarity by longtime Pearl company member Bradford Cover) and Rebecca West (Margot White) -- and which has taken on even more pointed relevance in the age of Obama.

Listen to Rosmer as he stubbornly insists on believing only the best from opposing factions who have demonstrated malice and obstruction towards him; you'll undoubtedly hear some prophetic echoes, whatever your political sympathies might be. It's that startling recognition, in fact, that gives this play its truly tragic dimensions.

As the traditionally bombastic Dr. Kroll, the uncompromising conservative who uncovers damaging secrets at Rosmersholm, Austin Pendleton offers some of his strongest stage work in recent memory. He overplays somewhat the naturalistic hand gestures that convey an exterior calm to his character, but he's often mesmerizing in his increasingly heated confrontations with Rosmer, Rebecca, and others.

Less consistent is White as the passionate free thinker hiding dark secrets from her past. The actress is particularly compelling in the show's second half, as the fissures in her life turn to chasms, but she tends to give too much away in the first act, overplaying certain moments in ways that unnecessarily signal what's to come.

The most remarkable performance of the evening is given by Robin Leslie Brown in one of the smaller roles, the dedicated house servant Mrs. Helseth. It would be hard to imagine an actor who could better handle the hoary declamations in the play's final moments. The rock-solid humanity that Brown bestows on her minor character gets her through the script's more purple passages and provides some much-needed humor as well.

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