Archives for March 2013

Strindberg’s Spring

easter3The uplifting new production of August Strindberg’s Easter, a springtime drama inspired by medieval Passion plays of death and rebirth, is set in a modern American household. While the family frets over their financial and legal woes, teen-age daughter Lenora lights up the stage with her visionary insights and idiosyncratic wisdom.

The season is a cold, snowy spring, between bleak winter and summer’s far-off promises of hope and a longed-for journey to the family farm. “I think about summer,” someone says. “Getting back home out of this dreadful city.” It’s a city where neighbors spy and pry, and rats scuttle out of cellars. Lenora, descanting on trees and birds, makes her odd, sweet efforts to guide the others to a wavering optimism.

Through her, the play’s movement progresses in a single uninterrupted flow, discreetly following the pattern of its original three-act structure: Maundy Tursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, “the eve of Easter’s Resurrection”–as Lenora observes.

“Easter-girl” was the name Swedish playwright Strindberg gave to his sister, whom he loved “like my twin” and called his “poetic figure of light in a world heavy with bitterness.” She is the model for Lenora, the play’s central and most appealing figure.

This production of Easter (1901) forms a companion piece to Strindberg’s Pling with Fire (1893), written about the same family, and presented last May by the recently founded August Strindberg Repertory Theatre.

The company’s charismatic Ley Smith plays Lenora, an unpredictable sixteen-year-old who seems like a wide-eyed innocent but who nevertheless claims, “I was born old.” Long acquainted with her own sufferings, she serves as the family’s uncomplaining lamb, who bears their burdens with understanding. For much of the action, Lenora shares the scene with Benjamin, a schoolboy boarder played by the talented DeSean Stokes. In real life, Ley Smith and DeSean Stokes, shown above, were student actors together, and happily re-connect in the play’s mutually sympathetic roles.

To the family, Lenora is an ambiguous blessing. When she enters bearing a flowerpot of lilies in glorious Easter bloom, she could be an angelic messenger of grace.

Not so. Her gesture creates anxiety. The deranged Lenora has been furloughed or has walked away from a mental institution, and has probably reverted to her usual crime of stealing. Her jittery mother guesses this will mean the police and prison, or the girl’s being sent back to Bellevue, where, Lenora recalls, “one is tortured worse than prison, where the damned live, where despair keeps watch day and night.”

Lenora’s actions coincide with the hardships that have beset this family all along.

The Morgan family is cast as black, and lives in 1958 Harlem. For the most part the Morgans behave and talk as any middle-class American family would in a similar plight. Just once, Lenora does a funky little language riff that thrusts the play briefly into the theatrical mode of American playwright August Wilson. Mainly, the world of Easter presents one family’s troubles in a style that could be any family’s.

Father is in prison for embezzling funds from an orphanage. Mother denies his guilt, but as her son becomes chillingly aware, her complicity could send her to prison too, The son Ellis is a Latin teacher, and the breadwinner. Fearing bankruptcy, Ellis has to put off his wedding to Christine. Compulsively, Christine hems lace curtains that look like endless yards of bridal veil. These unfinished curtains are about as close as the couple gets to a future home of their own. Nor does Ellis have the money to defend his thesis. A colleague, supposedly a friend, has plagiarized Ellis’s work. The so-called friend threatens to steal fiançée Christine as well. She in fact seems to be slipping away, for she accepts an invitation to dine at the treacherous friend’s house. One more misfortune: young Benjamin comes home crying after he fails an exam. He’s the bright student the family has taken in, one of the orphans robbed by their Father.

For everyone, daily life means a struggle against desperation. With pointless, misspent energy Ellis rants against his insoluble problems, pacing the family living room where all the action takes place.

Together, the Morgans wait for calamity to descend. They continually peer through huge imaginary windows sketched across the set. Out there, danger looms. It could be the police. It could be the vicious creditor who’s moved in across the street and lurks like a spider ready to pounce and devour these wretched flies. The creditor will surely cart off all they’ve got. Mother already laments their imminent life without furniture. But the creditor waits until the final scene to stomp in with rubber boots and sinister jollity, bringing a revelation and a surprise.

Throughout, Lenora forms a bond with Benjamin. He’s entranced by her skewed, exalted utterances. To Benjamin, Lenora’s wayward perceptions attain the status of wisdom, however veiled. “You understand everything,” he marvels. He knows Kant and Schopenhauer, she knows the Bible, or her versions of it. Lenora’s language tends toward the mystic and the magic, counteracting the hard realism that saps the family’s hope. “I know what the birds say. I can see stars in daylight with my magnifying eyes.” She makes time fly, twirling the clock’s hands, tearing pages from the calendar to hasten the coming of Summer. Her lyricism gives her a legendary quality. At times she sounds like a self-appointed sybil of the Scriptures. She’s a mythic Persephone, back home on a vacation from hell. With her dreaming words and strange poetry, her flower lore and personal affinity for the secret lives of plants, Lenora also sounds like Hamlet‘s Ophelia, if only Shakespeare had made Ophelia a figure of strength rather than mere pathos.

The August Strindberg Rep has the Swedish playwright’s ideal New York interpreter in the fervent Robert Greer. The versatile, animated, fast-talking director learned Swedish in his dedication to the saturnine August Strindberg (1849-1912). Faithful to the spirituality of the text, and to the Haydn music indicated by the playwright, the production offers fleeting measures of Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross.

            Easter runs from March 8 through Easter Sunday, March 31. Easter is performed in the intimate Gene Frankel Theatre space on 24 Bond Street. Tickets are available from Smarttix.

Copyright 2013 Marcelle Thiebaux