After more than a century, the mystery of why Ibsen’s Little Eyolf is so rarely performed has been solved: It’s a dog. The production now at the Century Center as part of its Ibsen series only highlights its ludicrous faults. To be fair, it also uncovers a hint of psychological genius fighting to emerge from the claptrap around it.
Think of Little Eyolf, which follows A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabbler, as Ibsen’s Cymbeline—a hodgepodge of the author’s golden oldies, including odd genre combinations, secondhand devices, and characters who are poor cousins to previous creations. Bartlett Sher made a hit of Theatre for a New Audience’s Cymbeline this season by reimagining the piece to make hay of its absurd plotting and mix-‘n’-match styles. By contrast, Steve Ramshur stages this grim Ibsen debacle in deadly earnest.
The sorry story details how the tensely married Rita and Alfred erupt into warfare when he resolves to give up writing about “human responsibility” to devote himself to their neglected, crippled son, Eyolf. (Psst! They’re not having sex.) Rita can spare no part of Alfred, either to their little boy or to Alfred’s beloved sister, Asta. Eyolf drowns shortly after a peasant called the Rat Wife departs, miffed at hearing that the rich family has no rodent-ridding business for her (like the pied piper, she lures them into the water until they drown). The couple hurl recriminations, undergo breathtakingly sudden moral transformations, and vow to adopt the town’s poor children. There’s also a clumsy subplot about Alfred’s sister—or is she?—and her suitor, Borghejm.
Ibsen has written husband and wife unbelievable lines, which the director handles with more respect than they deserve. A needy wife like Rita might well think, “I don’t want to share you with anyone.” Perhaps she might even blurt it out in a confessional whisper. But Ramshur directs Linda Marie Larson to shriek it. For his part, Duncan M. Rogers’s Alfred responds with a passive-aggressive stolidity that comes across as wooden. At times, though, when the text supports the actors, they do create some gripping psychic interactions. In one—composed of equal parts guilt, blame, and grief—they percolate like forebears of Albee’s George and Martha. Naomi Peters fares better with the less problematic role of Asta, and Gabriel Maxson charms as her normal-guy wooer. Everyone huffs and puffs to make this sick puppy do tricks, but without an act of magic, maybe they should let sleeping dogs lie.