Review: JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN is a Study in the Pain of Leaving Things Unresolved

By: Jun. 27, 2016

JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN is Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's second-to-last play written in 1896. The source material for the play comes from an incident from an earlier period in his life, revolving around the suicide attempt of an army officer accused of embezzlement. While the play falls along side of the naturalism and social commentary of the works of Ibsen's middle period, the ending also clearly hints at Ibsen's final phase of more symbolic work, which can clearly be seen in his final play, When We Dead Awaken.

John Gabriel Borkman (Ev Lunning, Jr.) is a disgraced former bank-manager. Sixteen years before the play begins, he was imprisoned for fraud. He maintains he was innocent, because he was using customers' money to make investments to better the conditions of those customers. Before he could pay back that money borrowed without consent, he was reported by a friend who was in love with Ella Rentheim (Katherine Schroeder), as was Borkman. As a young man Borkman deserted his great love Ella, and instead married her twin, Gunhild (Jan Phillips) in exchange for bettering his career.

Since his release from prison eight years ago, he has been living on the upper floor of Ella's property. His wife lives on the floor below, but they have no contact with one another. Their son, Erhart (Sebastian Garcia), is a student in the city. Borkman never leaves the upper floor, and is only visited by Vilhelm Foldal (Garry Peters), a friend who lost everything as a result of Borkman's speculations. Borkman foolishly believes that one day the bank will come and ask him to return. While he was imprisoned, Ella took care of Erhart, and became closely attached to him, but Erhart has now become acquainted with divorcee Fanny Wilton (Circe Sturm).

The key issue in the play arises from Ella coming to ask that Erhart live with her and take her name. She reveals to Borkman that she has a fatal disease and he agrees with her proposal; however Gunhild refuses to allow her twin Ella, with whom she has had no contact all these years, to take over her son. What follows is a bitter conflict between the sisters.

This is a dark Ibsen piece, holding true to the cannon of Ibsen, where men take actions and women suffer their consequences; however, it does have moments of wry humor.

Ann Marie Gordon's set, with its minimalist period furniture backed by huge blue backlit panels, and Patrick Anthony's light design with a gorgeous use of gobos, enhance Ibsen's wintry imagery. Norman Blumensaadt's direction emphasizes the inertia in this household, extending that frozen landscape to the hearts of husband, wife and sister. The costumes, by Emily Cawood, are beautiful and I especially liked the stagehands in white for this production, covering and uncovering the furniture with dust covers. Anthony's gobo work in the frozen forest scene was quite a lovely effect.

What drives this production is the acting. The verbal duels between Phillips and Schroeder are riveting and glacially dignified. Both these performances are the picture of restraint and deep seated hurt. Lunning presents a shell of a man, unrepentant and vain, waiting foolishly for vindication. Lunning exudes a chilling grandeur in Borkman's refusal to acknowledge the failure that haunts him. Garry Peters gives a wonderfully quirky and nuanced performance as Borkman's sole friend. I also enjoyed Circe Sturm as Fanny, the single voice for the virtue of being happy. Her character's presence lightened the stale air of the past that permeates the proceedings.

Perhaps the real message of JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN is in a line from the title character close to the end of the play, when the young and hopeful flee town in a sleigh, running over poor Vilhelm Foldal: "we are all of us run over, sometime or other in life. The thing is to jump up again, and let no one see you are hurt."

JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN by Henrik Ibsen. Translation by Nicholas Wright.

Running time: Two Hours plus One Intermission

JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN , produced by Different Stages at The Vortex (2307 Manor Road, Austin, TX, 78722)

June 24 - July 16, 2016

Thursdays - Saturdays 8:00 p.m., Sundays 6:00 pm.

Tickets are $15 on Thursdays, $20, $25 or $30 Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

For tickets and information call 512-478-5282 Or


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