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Strindberg without the sizzle

By Christopher Swan / May 8, 1984



Philadelphia

Reading August Strindberg's play ''The Father'' is like chewing on a bitter root: The aftertaste stays with you a long time. The Philadelphia Drama Guild's ''freely adapted'' version of the play, which opened here April 29, makes you marvel at how easily the thing goes down . . . and how little of it lingers to bother you.

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In the process of making this nearly unproducible work playable before a modern audience, with its artless theatrical devices and knotty dialogue, playwright-adapter Oliver Hailey and director William Woodman have lost the central image of the play - the self-portrait of a man tortured by his own delusions - and therefore its incredible power to move us.

After a series of interviews with the principals, as well as a reading of both texts, it is easy to see why.

''The Father'' reads like the bitter diatribe of a mad misogynist. The playwright's astringent view of women, and his dread of their increasing freedom (he wrote the play in 1887), infest every line. The accumulated venom of his deteriorating marriage found vent in this consummately destructive work.

All of which led playwright Oliver Hailey to wonder why he had been chosen by the Philadelphia Drama Guild to write the ''freely adapted'' version of the play.

Surrounded by his wife and two daughters in a vaguely Tudoresque restaurant on the University of Pennsylvania campus, Hailey points out that much of his work portrays the injustice and humiliation endured by women at the hands of a male-dominated society. And he says he lives on the emotional support he gets from his wife (Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, whose play ''A Woman of Independent Means'' opened on Broadway last week) and daughters.

The sweet-faced man with a fastidious beard and small, tender eyes admits that he couldn't bring himself to leave the play as Strindberg had written it; and what we have in the Philadelphia Drama Guild production is a play with its feet unsteadily planted in two worlds.

At nearly every turn, Hailey, who says his soul is soothed by women, tried to mollify Strindberg, who found them the torment of his life.

Hailey's talents as a playwright - the smoothing of dialogue, the ordering of scenes - are evident throughout this free adaptation, as are the frequent touches of humor with which he has gently lit up the work. ''If I didn't know Strindberg was so irascible,'' Hailey mused an hour before the opening, ''I'd (like to) put my arm around him and say, 'Look, fella, it's working for a modern audience, and in a foreign tongue.'''

He'd have a point. Hailey's adaptation, in combination with the artfully lit, smoothly directed Drama Guild production, wrings laughs and gasps from its audience. The thing obviously plays, fulfilling what Guild producing director Gregory Poggi asked for.

Poggi, a dark, intense man who has rescued this theater from a six-figure deficit in his five seasons here, says he was looking for Strindberg in a playable form, one that a modern Philadelphia audience could understand. If that meant adding an accusation that Strindberg's character, the Captain - who destroys himself in a struggle with his wife over his daughter - is guilty of latent incest, then so be it.

And therein lies the rub. Poggi and Hailey seem blithely unconcerned about violating the text. While the argument can be made that the incest theme is inherent in the play's labyrinthian undercurrents, Strindberg did not say so - either in the text or in his copious letters about the piece. Even more to the point, Hailey's tampering with the balance of power between the Captain and his wife, Laura, leaves them at an emotional standoff, with all the dramatic stasis that implies.

Neither Betsy Palmer's tautly realistic performance as Laura nor William Woodman's frequently sensitive and tender direction can overcome this basic flaw. And throughout the evening, you feel that Stephen Joyce as the Captain is laboring mightily under the burden it imposes. Joyce, who won a Drama Desk award for his work on Broadway in ''The Caine Mutiny,'' spends much of the evening straining for some dramatic intensity. The result is a performance that grates on the nerves when it should tear slowly at the mind.

It is difficult to tell from this easy evening in the theater why Eugene O'Neill, Sean O'Casey, Harold Pinter, and a host of other modern playwrights consider Strindberg their ancestral root. He's a bitter root, indeed. And, while the audience in this theater groans from time to time, you get the feeling that Strindberg wanted it to sit in stunned and horrified silence.