Last week The Seattle Repertory Theatre gave birth to David Grimm's Ibsen In Chicago, which runs through March 4, and everything went perfectly well. During the Saturday matinee I saw, the audience filed in, consumed the umpteenth 100-minute play about the lie of the American Dream that nevertheless promotes the idea that one should do what ones loves to the fullest because ~who knows?~ maybe you'll get big in Racine? And then the audience filed out.
Nobody laughed too hard, nobody cried too hard, and the actors performed their functions beautifully. Grimm's writing is sharp and humorous, the story is fittingly "well-made," and the pro-Theater message was handled with enough self-deprecation to avoid embarrassment in a society where theater artists must eat grants or starve to death, so no harm there. But, aside from L.B. Morse's gorgeous set, which totally transported the audience to a charmingly dilapidated theater in the middle of immigrant-rich 1882 Chicago, the only remarkable thing about the play is how aggressively competent it was.
Ibsen is a nice late-winter/early spring diversion about a Danish bricklayer named Henning (played by Christopher McLinden), who has a dream and heart of gold. The dream: Henning wants to produce the world premiere of Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts, which was considered too shocking for audiences of its time due to taboo content involving incest and STIs. He has exclusive rights to show, and he's betting it'll go over fine in America, where all things are possible. He rallies a motley crew of other Scandinavian immigrants to put on the play, but life intervenes, hijinks ensue, and a love affair nearly burns the whole theater to the ground. The show can't go on, but of course it has to, and so it does. And though things don't exactly end up happily ever after, the characters realize they'll always have the thea-tah—and, of course, each other.
The play-within-a-play thing is an old trope, and Grimm uses it to highlight the way the drama offstage so often resonates with the drama onstage.
Through his characters, he specifically thinks a lot about the old battle between artifice and Realism. Helga (played by Kirsten Potter, who is hilarious) is all artifice. She practices an old, stilted form of acting that reduces the nuance of human emotions to a series of wooden gestures. Elsa (played by Hannah Ruwe) is all Realism. She's just a Danish gal (with a secret) who's trying to make it as best she can in the big city. As the players begin to rehearse for Ghosts, the two women (and the philosophies they embody) trade barbs with one another and compete for Hemming's affection. As this goes on, you realize the distinction between art and reality is a false one, and you didn't even have to think too hard.
Meanwhile, two drunken fools—Pekka (played by Allen Fitzpatrick) and Per (played by R. Hamilton Wright)—variously play tricks and try to save the day. And Solveig, a sort of stage manager played by Annette Toutonghi, adds just enough absurdity and true sadness to keep the script from being 100 percent predictable.
Ibsen is the theatrical equivalent of driving a Toyota Camry. Which is fine! A Camry is a reliable vehicle that will take you where you need to go. And sometimes theater people just want to go to a show that has absolutely zero pretenses of being anything other than a play for theater people. If watching a play that rewards you for working in the world of theater seems like something you'd be into, then you'll have a nice time. If not, not.