For all our vitality of our stage scene, Los Angeles craves more exposure to world theater. Most of what makes its way to us greatly expands our awareness of the limitless scope of imaginative enterprise. Expensive imports aside, addressing the work of major playwrights whose work is unknown to us in original local productions provides a welcome opportunity. Pacific Resident Theatre’s U.S. premiere of Lars Norén’s Autumn and Winter (1988) introduces us to someone generally regarded as Sweden’s major playwright of the past half century, albeit new to my awareness.
Norén acknowledges influence from Eugene O’Neill (his play And Give Us the Shadows dramatizes a portion of O’Neill’s life) and from Edward Albee, and those antecedents are baldly evident in the instant show, which could be considered a liquor-fueled a Long Night’s Journey into Rather Later That Night.
Part of a trilogy of “bougeois quartets,” Autumn and Winter depicts a monthly family dinner in a Stockholm apartment at the end of October (hence, the title). Henrik (Jon Johannessen) is a doctor in decline, who so recessively absents himself from conflict that Albee’s George appears aggressive by contrast. His controlling, withholding wife Margareta (Melissa Weber Bales) entertain daughters Eva (Nina Sallinen), a successful career woman plagued by childlessness, and the younger Ann (Em Svenninger), whose near-destitution as a single underemployed mother fuels the resentful anger that exposes the lacerating wounds at the heart of the family.
These have become undeniable over-familiar dramatic elements during the period of Norén’s career, and the initial sensation of the establishment of situation and character inevitably reeks of some déjà vu. Nevertheless, Norén exibits such an acute level of skill with his materials that over the course of the evening, the hammer-and-tongs intensity builds incessantly and proceeds to top itself again and again with explosive fireworks.
The European aspect that adds analytic spice to this familiar mixture is the class critique, not merely of bourgeois hypocrisy, but of economic and social privilege itself. In our present political environment, what might have seemed exotic local color when the play was new now feels immediately pertinent. I suppose our consciousness is playing catch-up.
Marita Lindholm Gochman, who has become the primary translator of Norén into English, treads a delicate line between a rhetorical stiltedness that feels as if it probably suits the original language’s cadences and a compromise from colloquial English. Again, while at first disconcerting, the ear attunes, and as the confrontations grow increasingly heated, the diction begins to feel intrinsic to the rhythms of the drama. It ends up feeling authentically Scandinavian and recognizably elemental.
Obviously a tricky undertaking, the play benefits from director Dana Jackson’s efforts to find a plausible tone for the innate artificiality of the arguments within a resolutely realistic context. The cast, as with the text itself, gains in credibility the deeper we are enmeshed in its conflicts. (One insurmountable obstacle is why this night is different from all other nights, given that these dinners are apparently a family habit. This retreats into irrelevance as the action progresses.) Norén tends to saddle each character with deeply unsympathetic flaws which their slightly redeeming victimhood only gradually and partially humanizes.
Still, this work and the production transcend the earlier limitations to deliver one sledgehammer wallop after another, and the emotional workout benefits from its fundamental integrity of vision.
Bittersweet it is to contemplate the late Norman Scott’s Spartan middle-class scenic design, and Ken Booth’s lighting. Co-producer Scott Jackson’s costume and sound design are also effective within the modest resources available. Artistic director Marilyn Fox made a bold choice in choosing this particular play to inaugurate PRT’s 30th season.
Autumn and Winter, Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice, (310) 822-8392, www.pacificresidenttheatre.com, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. Through May 21. Running time: Two hours, ten minutes (with intermission).