The men create the drama in Henrik Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck.” But forget about the men and their dramatically misplaced obsessions with the concept of ideal lives. At Quintessence Theatre, the females in the cast seize the production by the sheer dint of their acting.
Quintessence presents the classic in a new adaptation by director Rebecca Wright and her ensemble and it’s true enough to the play, or the version of the play I know translated from the original Danish. (The adaptation is strikingly unfaithful in one way: It clumsily changes the play’s last lines, watering down the ending’s impact and thereby our final impression.) The language throughout the adaptation is an easy blend of current words like “slacker” and Ibsen’s more retro dialogue, especially heavy on the concept of an idealism that overlooks repercussions.
Those repercussions are heavy, eventually destroying the lives of a family that skimps by: Hjalmar, a photographer who lives with his wife and daughter and also boards his dad, an elderly military man in ruins since he was convicted a dozen years ago of a fraud scheme for which his partner was acquitted. The partner went on to success and riches in the timber business, in which his own son Gregers – horrified by the charges and ensuing trial — has been toiling far away in the tree-cutting fields.
Gregers and Hjalmar grew up as buddies, but are estranged after their dads’ troubles until they meet at a fancy family dinner thrown by Gregers’ father. That meeting leads to major complications, as Gregers learns about his father’s dalliance with the woman who was to become Hjalmar’s wife. The naïve Gregers decides that setting the record straight will purify everyone involved except maybe for the wounded wild duck that Hjalmar keeps around, and – well, the duck is the play’s metaphor, stretched even for Ibsen.
In the Quintessence production, Gregers is played by Tom Carman, who spends a lot of time delivering his lines to the stage floor in order to seem bewildered or pensive or frustrated or … what? The unfortunate Hjalmar, whose life is about to be upended by Gregers’ insistence on butting in, is portrayed by David Pica, hopping mechanically through the character’s several changing moods, without a second’s transition. Nuance is not a factor in either portrayal; at the performance I saw, it seemed these guys were often saying the lines and not feeling them.
But the two key female characters, and a male character who’s played by a woman, shine on the Quintessence stage, and not just by contrast. Hjalmar’s put-upon wife is played as a genuine human being by Brett Ashley Robinson. She turns in a performance that makes us feel the repressed pain of a woman whose husband lives on the edge of everything including his frail ego.
Their daughter is portrayed in a remarkable performance by 10-year-old Deysha Nelson, fully capturing the spirit of a child who would do anything to make her father happy because he’s the only hero she’s every known. Nelson has the chops to make you not only understand what she’s feeling but what she’s thinking, too. And Relling, the doctor in the play whose tenor ranges from gruff to gruffer, is Mary Tuomanen, the all-around theater artist who runs through unusual challenges as though they were the everyday norm. It takes a minute to get used to her in the role, but that’s not her doing. After the minute is over, she seems made for the part.
Quintessence often depends on very little scenery to do a very big job, but “The Wild Duck” has all the scenic trimmings. Em Arrick’s set of a hallway outside closed rooms opens up after the first scene to transform into Hjalmar’s apartment, probably a bit expansive for what’s the script asks but a great playing space nonetheless. Let’s just say that the women do wonders in it.
“The Wild Duck,” produced by Quintessence Theatre, runs through April 29 at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. in Philadelphia’s Mount Airy neighborhood. The play alternates in repertory with Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” 215-987-4450 or quintessencetheatre.org.