Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ibsen in Lanesboro

Many adults carry an image in the back of their minds of a place—a beautiful place—that’s semi-rural, attractive, calm, slow-paced, and neighborly… and they’re going to move there someday. But it can’t be inhabited by farmers, penny-pinching shopkeepers out of a Balzac novel, Bible-thumping conservatives, and other assorted hicks. No, it must also display breeding and intelligence. An artist’s colony, if you will. Yet rooted and organic. The kind of town we saw in the TV series Northern Exposure, where the local DJ was an ex-con who spouted Kierkegaard.

For myself, I love the city. But I also love to head out into the countryside. And on a spring weekend, with the wildflowers sprouting and the birds heading north up the Mississippi, there can be no better destination than Lanesboro, Minnesota, a beautiful town tucked beneath the cliffs with the Root River flowing through it and a community theater that’s far better than average for a town of 778 souls.

The Commonweal Theatre has held an Ibsen festival annually for the last fourteen years, and we had arranged to see this year’s offering, John Gabriel Bjorkman. I’d never heard of that play, and now that I’ve seen it, I can see why. I’m not saying it was bad. I found it interesting and entertaining and sometimes dramatic. But how many plays by Ibsen do we really need to keep afloat?

We stayed at the Scandinavian Inn B & B, ate dinner at the Peddle Pusher Café, and attended the pre-performance art lecture catered by Kari’s Scandinavian Restaurant. (The restaurant itself, which adjoins the theater, was packed with professors from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and their spouses, who’d come up to see the show.)

In an effort to enhance the play’s “relevance,” the accompanying literature stressed the greed of the title character, who ruins the lives of countless investors in his struggle for wealth and power, but this emphasis misses the point of the play entirely. John Gabriel Bjorkman wasn’t a greedy man. He had no interest in money per se. No, Bjorkman was a visionary and a megalomaniac, who felt that only he had the wherewithal to harness all the mining, shipping, railroad, and manufacturing potential of Norway. To generate the required capital would require some creative (and fraudulent) bookkeeping. The play deals with the aftermath of the collapse of Bjorkman’s schemes and his lingering effect on the several women who were attracted to his charismatic energy but subsequently cast aside in one way or another as he relentlessly pursued his dream of industrial mastery. Simple greed never figures into the story.

In the title role, artistic director Hal Cropp nails the character of Bjorkman, with his seething energy and utter obliviousness to the effect his schemes have had on other people. Adrienne Sweeney is also very effective as the long-suffering sister-in-law and former lover, who, to complicate matters, also served as a surrogate mother to Bjorkman’s son for many years. David Hennessey plays Sancho Panza to Bjorkman’s Quixote with true sensitivity and poetry, and is certainly the most likable character in the play—and probably the wisest. The one weak link in the cast is Siobhan Maya Bremer, who (unfortunately) plays the central role of Bjorkman’s embittered wife. Her portrayal is wooden, her delivery flat and harsh, her understanding of the role skin-deep. It may be that she is simply too young to play the part of a woman who’s been shamed by both her husband and her sister and all but abandoned by her son.

The next morning we chatted with the Amish women selling quilts and baskets in the town park—their horses were tethered in the woods nearby—and then dropped in briefly at the Sons of Norway Hall where people in colorful vests were exhibiting their woodcarvings and rosemaling. We skipped the documentary film about Bernie Madoff and the lecture “Confronting the Temptations of Greed, Money, and Power in Our Society” and went bird-watching at nearby Forestville State Park. The rue anemones were in bloom, and also the Virginia bluebells. The stream was dotted here and there with fishermen in waders, and the local trout society was giving lectures in the pavilian on sink holes and Oneota limestone. But the only warbler we saw was the myrtle. Not a bad bird. But always the first warbler, undistinguished, arriving in droves...

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