“Lights make empty rooms more dreadful than darkness,” says Gustav Afzelius, a thinly-veiled representation of playwright August Strindberg in The Storm, a well-acted, well-directed period piece in the truest sense of the word.
Not only does the dress ring as true as the antique phone, new in its time, so are the attitudes expressed, where words and gestures have the impact of slow natural disasters. If the storm of the title rages, it’s an internal rage full of silence in a silent house.
The play begins in silence, with the cabinet minister’s younger brother waiting for him on a bench, contemplating a chessboard. He has come to make his brother aware of the innuendos being spread by his ex-wife. The older man professes not to care. He is more bothered by the white nights of the midnight sun, a natural wonder in this part of the world, but which gives him no relief. This will be the first night when enough darkness will warrant the lighting of gas streetlamps, a most welcome occurrence, a return to normal for the cabinet minister.
He wants to know less if possible, not more. He values his solitude and wants nothing more than to settle into old age, but all around him schemes are being hatched, and we suspect that despite all of his talk, he has his own.
It’s remarkable to find a theatre and a company on the lower east side of Manhattan dedicated to bringing us plays from a time and place so distant. If you arrive early enough before the performance to exchange a few words with director and company founder Robert Greer, while he offers you cookies reminiscent of the period, this feeling will grow richer. A university professor of electrical engineering by trade he stepped into a bookstore in his youth looking for something quick to read and happened upon a book of Strindberg’s one-act plays, fell in love with them, learned Swedish, and here we are.
In theatre, we depend on the words for everything – to tell the story, advance the plot, evoke our feelings. That’s more evident than ever in this play where there are no quick actions, only conversation. If anything rash happens it does so off stage and we hear about it in words. But there’s also another dimension – the unspoken. The thing not said, the unexpressed, is the play’s most powerful force and the actors make it palpable beautifully.
The younger brother Carl Frederick (Curtis James Nielsen) expresses concern for his brother, but tells us nothing about his desire for the man’s ex-wife, but we know it. The housekeeper Louise, who happens to be the cabinet minister’s cousin, attentive to his every need (Mary Baynard) with infinite patience, reveals none of her own wishes in words, but somehow we know she will become the old man’s next wife. Only Genevieve, the ex-wife (Alyssa Simon) seeking escape from the abusive marriage in which she now finds herself, clearly jealous of the housekeeper, driven by desperation, gives voice to her wish to return to her former relationship, but stating things directly doesn’t really work in the atmosphere of this play; so she comes off as unseemly and badly-motivated. The cabinet minister (Laurence Cantor) is having none of it. He prefers to comment on the light.
Historians suspect that “The Storm” was written by Strindberg as a revenge play against his third wife, actress Harriet Bosse, who smeared his reputation after the divorce. As we left the performance area, I heard a member of the audience whisper to another that some fifteen years after the initial production, the real life ex-wife actress played the role of herself. All the world’s a stage.
Written by August Strindberg; directed by Robert Greer; managing director, Gail Thacker; propmaster, Joanna Vanadia; stage manager, Samantha Ryel; costume design, Janet O’Neil; lighting design, Benjamin Eherenreich; movement choreographer, Martin Boersma; scenic design, You-Shin Chen; social media, Katie Ostrowski.
With: Alyssa Simon, Curtis James Nielsen, Laurence Cantor, and Mary Baynard.
At Gene Frankel Theater, 24 Bond Street, New York, NY ( (between Bowery and Lafayette) Box office: SMARTTIX, 212-868-4444; www.smarttix.com. Runs through October 30, Tuesdays and Thursdays, 7PM, Wednesdays and Fridays, 8PM, Saturdays and Sundays, 2PM.