New Intimate Theatre, performing in Thorne’s Marketplace, third floor, Northampton, Massachusetts. Directed by Tom Shieding. With Shieding as Edgar, the Captain, Cher Love Strong as Alice, his wife, and Steven Abdow as Curt
I saw the Almeida Theatre production of this play a few years back — possibly a decade ago, a memorable production, intense and vital. This amateur production could not have been expected to rise to such a level, but it was surprisingly good all the same. It is sometimes a risky venture to act in the play you yourself are directing, and Shieding missed some things that needed attention. Pace is a difficulty for a play of this sort, in which few things happen and most of the time is taken up with edgy conversation punctuated by verbal battles. Strindberg’s basic strategy is to insert an old friend of both husband and wife into their inveterate squabbling and use this device as a catalyst for bringing things to a head. It certainly works, dramatically speaking, but still the level of intensity and the insistent character of the dramaturgy require remarkable sustaining power on the part of the three principal actors. It also requires considerable effort to avoid monotony — playing always on small variations of a single emotion.
These actors did pretty well with this, though they did not quite solve the problem implicitly posed by Strindberg in writing about a couple that have spent twenty-five years together, namely, how is it that a couple that seems to hate and despise each other so much have stayed together this long? Curt, the old friend who has arrived on the island as superintendent of the quarantine station, notes the fact of the couple’s longevity with some surprise, and so do we. But Strindberg’s analysis is that these two people have a profound need for one another and simultaneously take great, perverse satisfaction in tormenting one another — and themselves. Such is human character, in Strindberg’s anti-idealistic analysis, when it comes to relations between men and women. The Edgar and the Alice didn’t quite plumb the depths of this extraordinary bipolar magnetism. But they had a good crack at it and on the whole did well with a truly difficult and challenging script.
The supporting roles in this play are quite incidental; Strindberg seems reluctant to bring his maid Jenny on stage at all, and she gives notice and disappears before the end of the first act. There is a strange visitation of an old woman, who seems more an apparition than real, as if out of another play altogether; very odd. But the sentry keeping watch outside, with drawn sword at the ready on his shoulder (as the Captain himself approvingly observes), goose-steps his way back and fourth at appropriate moments to signal a transition or a change of pace. In moments like this we are reminded what a master dramatist Strindberg really was. He was capable of spectacular effects, as in A Dream Play, and of striking expressionistic and symbolic departures from ordinary reality, as in The Ghost Sonata. But he was nevertheless at his best in crafting the details, as well as the overall arc of progress, of his perennial subject, the mésalliance of two human beings in the tempestuous cauldron of marriage. The New Intimate Theatre (the name is no doubt a reverential allusion to Strindberg’s own Intimate Theatre, in which this play was first produced) did surprisingly well in capturing some of the qualities that draw actors and audiences to this dramatist’s plays a century after they first appeared.