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A rare staging of `Brand,' the play that made Ibsen famous

By John BeaufortSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 7, 1985

New York

Brand Play by Henrik Ibsen, translated by Michael Meyer. Directed by Craig D. Kinzer. The intrepid City Stage Company (CSC) has braved the heights of yet another dramatic mountainscape. The company opened its 19th season with Michael Meyer's slightly condensed translation of ``Brand,'' the 1866 poetic drama which established Henrik Ibsen's international reputation but which is rarely performed in its entirety in English.

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``Brand'' is the symbol-fraught epic about a courageous but uncompromising Norwegian village pastor who lives -- and dies -- by the credo ``All or nothing.'' When Brand's mother is nearing death, he refuses her the last rites unless she gives up all her wealth. Her responding message, ``God is not as hard as my son,'' anticipates the subsequent revelation to the doomed Brand from an unseen voice, ``He is the God of Love.''

Brand sacrifices not only himself but his infant son and his devotedly subservient wife, Agnes, to his stern absolutism. Shortly after the child's passing (caused by Brand's refusal to move to a warmer climate), he insists that Agnes give all of the baby's clothing and other effects to an importunate Gypsy. Erika Petersen's portrayal of Agnes's emotional and spiritual anguish over this sacrifice makes for one of the most poignant passages in the production, staged by Craig D. Kinzer.

Since Ibsen once described Brand as ``myself at my best moments,'' the actor entrusted with the role of the controversial cleric faces the problem of seasoning fanaticism with rectitude. In his expressive performance, Robert Stattel presents an idealist whose conviction becomes an obsession, a leader who inspires his followers with standards they find it impossible to meet. Using his inheritance, Brand achieves his purpose of replacing the old village church with a fine new edifice. But immediately upon

its completion, he denounces the project as vanity. When he tries to lead his flock from their dark valley to the light of the mountaintop, they falter on the way and end by stoning Brand. He is left to climb alone and to perish in the symbolic avalanche that destroys the glacial Ice Church and ends the epic.

Playing on a bare wooden stage surmounted by steeply rising steps, the CSC brings a lively immediacy to the remote events. The action features Jeffrey Hayenga as Ejnar, the painter-turned-missionary, and Susan Bruce as Gerd, the wild Gypsy girl Brand encounters in the mountains. Other principals in a generally satisfactory cast include Sally Chamberlin (Brand's mother), Patrick Tull (the crafty Mayor), Frank Dwyer (doubling as the Doctor and Schoolteacher), and Tom Spackman (the establishment-minded Pr ovost).

The revival is enhanced by Rick Butler's austere setting, Stephen Strawbridge's atmospheric lighting, and Catherine Zuber's soberly picturesque costumes. The two-part arrangement of Ibsen's five-act play runs for about 23/4 hours, with one intermission. After Nov. 29, ``Brand'' will be joined in repertory by a dramatization of Mary Shelley's ``Frankenstein.'' Eyes of the American Play by Samm-Art Williams. Directed by Walter Dallas.

In his most successful play, the heartwarming ``Home,'' Samm-Art Williams chronicled the tortuous return of a black prodigal to his native North Carolina soil. Mr. Williams's ``Eyes of the American'' is a far cry and a long way from ``Home.'' In his new work, which has opened at Theatre Four, the author dramatizes a power struggle -- with attendant CIA involvement -- on a Caribbean island recently granted independence.