Show's dazzling, monumental debate-and a Solid Ibsen revival
John Gabriel Borkman Drama By Henrick Ibsen. Translated Rolf Fjelde. Starring Irene Worth, E. G. Marshall, Rosemary Murphy. The Cirlce in the Square greeted the December cold snap with surely the wintriest of Henrick Ibsen's domestic dramas, "John Gabriel Borkman." Norway's great poet and damartist described it as a play about "the coldness of the heart." Only after chilling selfishness has worked its irreparable damage does Ibsen permit a belated reconciliation between twin sisters Gunhild Barkman (Rosemary Murphy) and the unmarried Ella Rentheim (Irene Worth).
In his youth, John Gabriel Borkman (E. G. Marshall) was loved by both sisters. Going against his heart, and merely to advance his career, he married Gunhild instead of Ella. When Borkman's overreaching ambition led to bank emberzzlement and a jail term. Ella made a home for the Borkmans' young son Erhart. Now a dying woman, Ella would like to persuade her nephew to come and live with her for the short time she has left. Her mission brings Ella to the forbidding Borkman home and its estranged husband and wife.
Ella discovers that the proud and implacable Gunhild is dedicating young Erhart to the mission of reclaiming the Borkman good name. For his part, John Gabriel, pacing his upstairs quarters ("a sick wolf padding in a cage"), dreams only of seizing again the instruments of economic power that were snatched from him. The Borkmans' dreams are, of course, chimerical. Even Ella's more modest hope is to be denied her.
The respectable revival, directed by Austin Pendleton, realizes much of the emotional impact of this curiously contrived but powerful psychological study. Miss Murphy's Gunhild is a woman obsessed and therefore self-destroying. Miss Worth delivers Ella's awful indictment of John Gabriel --sity. Mr. Marshall is most successful in conveying Borkman's matter-of-fact egotism, insensitivity, and dry humor; he misses the sense of vision which, however distorted and fantastic, possesses the doomed ex-magnate.
As Erhart, Freddie Lehne makes his declaration of independence with respectful firmness. Viveca Parker supplies a charming grace note as the piano-playing daugther of Borkman's loyal friend Foldal, acted with determined good cheer by Richard Kuss.The crispy attractive Patricia Gray Lloyd is miscast as Mrs. Wilton, the divorcee for whom Erhart leaves his family.
A principal problem of the production has to do with the physical layout of the Circle in the Square. The wide open spaces of the arena state do not suggest the claustrophobic confines of the Borkman home. Designer Andrew Jackness's setting, with its raw-flooring and sparse furnishings, created instead a sense of expansiveness. The snow-swept hillside finale is helped by Paul Gallo's chilly lighting. The 1890s costumes are by Jennifer von Mayrhauser.