The familiar strains of Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite give a false impression of the Ibsen drama that they accompanied when that drama opened in 1876.
The catchy “In the Hall of the Mountain King” and the sweet optimism of “Morning Mood” offers no indication of this play’s serious import. Nor does the jolly “Freddy and His Fiddle,” which Robert Wright and Chet Forrest adapted from Grieg for their Broadway musical, The Song of Norway.
Ibsen wrote a surrealistic tale that was published in 1867 in rhymed verse and staged in 1876. It moves fantastically in time and place as it tells the story of an unruly braggart who tries to justify everything by insisting he’s being true to himself. Ibsen’s story was based in his native Norway, although his protagonist Gynt traveled to Morocco, where he became involved with slave trading. The point is clear: Focusing entirely on one’s self is wrong, and you must care for others.
Back in Sally’s arms
Romulus Linney, who was raised in North Carolina and Tennessee, moved the story in 1998 to Appalachia, with an Act II detour to Hollywood. (Linney wrote about the rural South in such plays as Mountain Memory, Heathen Valley, Holy Ghosts, and Love Drunk.)
He transformed Peer Gynt into Pete Gint, who has a devoted mother but spends most of his time bragging, drinking, and getting into trouble. Gint is determined to become "something great, grand and glorious"— shades of Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin. Much like the Norwegian original, Gint gets entwined with a razorback hog and with incarnations of the devil and is defrauded by his rich acquaintances. At the end, he arrives back in the arms of the sweet Sally (Solveig in Ibsen’s play), who has been waiting for his return all of her life. When Gint apologizes for his absence, Sally replies, “Why be sorry? Waiting for you has made my life a beautiful dream.”
Appalachia suits this plot because it has a culture in which storytelling is survival. As Oldie Momma says, “When a shiftless daddy walks out, you either drink and beat the child or do what we did — tell stories together.” That’s what Ibsen, Linney, and Savadove have done.
Linney wrote that his Gint should be performed on a bare stage with almost no costuming and no music. So I was greatly impressed with this colorfully detailed production directed by Savadove. He precedes the play with a half-hour of hoedown fiddling and singing by the cast and intersperses similar music between scenes.
The striking sets — designed by Dirk Durossette and dramatically lit by Matt Sharp — portray the Appalachian Mountains in Act I and a California swimming pool in Act II. Crates and other props are moved to create buildings, roads, and even a bridge, which Gint traverses in pantomime on his way to purgatory. In a series of vivid nightmares, the actors simulate animals and spirits from hell.
Sean Lally makes a charismatic Gint, leaping, jumping, and moving his body like a wolf on the run or a bird in flight. He’s so appealing that you care for him despite his character’s errors of judgment. Melanie Julian is tremendously effective as Gint’s mother, who tries mightily to set him on the right path. The red-haired Isa St. Clair is plaintive as the enduring Sally. This is an ensemble play, so credit also must go to Lee Minora, Griffin Stanton-Ameisen, Cindy Spitko, Sarah Schol, Johnny Smith, and Ed Swidey.
What, When, Where
Gint. Play by Romulus Linney, adapted from Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt; Lane Savadove directed. EgoPo Classic Theater production through May 11, 2014 at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St., Philadelphia. 267-273-1414 or egopo.org.