Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Give Me The Sun (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I had a teacher back at the National Shakespeare Conservatory who viewed only two playwrights in the 19th century as "giants."  One was Norway's Henrik Ibsen, author of Ghosts which Tony Tanner has now 'adapted' into a somewhat streamlined version, titled Give Me the Sun.

The original proved deeply controversial in its day.  The notion of even mentioning venereal disease in polite society shocked and disturbed audiences over a century ago.  What Tanner does in this version is not so much recreate the same feeling as tweak it in ways making the story more interesting to a modern audience.  Social commentary focuses more upon dishonesty, upon keeping up appearances at the expense of happiness.  Ibsen's original built upon a squeamishness no longer nearly so extreme or common.  Instead Tanner shifts focus upon hypocrisy, upon willful stupidity and the habit of conformity.

Honestly the total effect--in terms of the script--proves less shocking, less powerful but more engaging.

Tanner also directed this production, and here there's a delightful level of just raw, pure competence.  Everyone dove into their roles with skill, so that even the weakest of them still did a fine job--and best of them enthralled.

Credit: Deborah Brosseau
The central character remains the widow Helene Alving (Alison Shanks), one of those female characters for which Ibsen rightly won so much fame, brought wonderfully to vivid life in this production.  Having lived a lie for decades, she now feels quite ready to spit it out, all concern for the rules of polite society burned away by marriage to a drunken libertine admired by all as a great, civic-minded citizen.  Now her son Osvalt (David Shofner) is home, a successful artist, she can finally reveal why she kept him away--i.e. to protect the boy from his father.  She ultimately reveals all this to the local minister, Manders (Stuart W. Howard) shocking him to the very core.  Although straight-laced and narrow minded, he turns out humane if not morally very brave.  Well meaning, but loving order more than love--which makes him in some ways the most pathetic character on stage.  Half of the shocking things she tells him he dismisses or forgets, with a pervasive habit of myopia the actor makes as vivid as it must come across as tragic.  Manders in fact can be easily manipulated by those ruthless and skilled enough--especially by a half-crippled sometimes-drunk named Engstrand (Joe Hulser).  Here is the one whose skillful deceit--so skilled I found myself believing him even when I knew it to be a lie--demonstrates a bit of the real world this man of God so little understands.  Finally we have Regina (Jill Maglione), Engstrand's daughter who's been raised in the Alving household and to whom the returning Osvalt feels such attraction.

Credit: Deborah Brosseau
Ibsen's words (through Tanner's lens) naturally reveals the secrets and tragedies which lie behind and within events.  Here we experience tragedy focused upon not the great and powerful but the rest of us.  This was the start of what led to giants like Williams, Albee, and O'Neil.  Not the hearts of kings or the mighty, but the epic of ordinary lives, which require so much silent and rarely applauded courage.

And in that courage, there is greatness.  In its absence the tragedy.  Helene, once the slave of conformity, can now look at the prospect of her son perhaps wedding his illegitimate half-sister and thinking only "Will they be happy?"  She finds in herself forgiveness to her late husband, realizing the fierceness of his heart turned in on itself by that conformity.  Faced with what for any parent must be the worst terror--the doom of her child--she smothers tears and stands straight when she clearly longs to flee.  Just as her son, desperate in the face of horror, proceeds with a brave resolve, accepting the sort of truths good pastor Manders would forever refuse to see. 

So instead of a searing indictment of moral cowardice involving one specific issue, we get a more rounded examination with less focus but more compassion.  Less of of an accusation, more of a sad tale with failed heroes rather than any real villains.  One that touches our hearts more, while stirring up one's bile less.

Give Me the Sun plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm until October 7, 2018 at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd. (one block east of Vine), Hollywood, CA 90038.

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