Ibsen drama takes on a troubled family 

Themes in Henrik Ibsen’s 1896 drama “John Gabriel Borkman” are wildly relevant today. The title character’s grandiose thinking and illegal financial schemes resulted in lost fortunes, not just for business investors but for family members, who, years later, continue to reel in the wake of the devastation.

The destruction, of course, goes deeper than money matters, and it’s the family dysfunction, sustained by denial all around, that truly fuels this engaging if not entirely compelling melodrama, presented by Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company in a new translation by David Eldridge.

The action takes place some 13 years after the misdeeds, after Borkman (James Carpenter) has served five years in prison and spent eight more at home, a recluse cooped away in an upstairs room.

He has almost no relationship with his wife, Gunhild (Karen Grassle), who has placed her emotional burdens and unreasonable expectations on their son, Erhart (Aaron Wilton).

But things change when Gunhild’s twin sister, Ella (Karen Lewis), pays a fateful visit. Although she wasn’t a casualty of Borkman’s greed, she remains inextricably tied to the family. Not only did she shelter Erhart during the debacle, she’s not over her love for Borkman, a romance that ended when he chose her sister over her, presumably for reasons of finance rather than the heart.

Finally, they address these long-festering issues in scenes that oddly manage to be realistic and like a soap-opera showdown at the same time.

The actors, particularly Carpenter, make the most of the creaky 19th-century dialogue. He’s convincing and even sympathetic as he defends what he did, truly believing his exploits weren’t for personal gain but to better society.

After a slow start in the first act, the sisters’ anger comes out in full force, nicely played by the well-cast Grassle and Lewis, who actually look like siblings.

Wilton displays Erhart’s frustrations with gusto; he’s matched by Pamela Gaye Walker, who plays his saucy paramour, a woman older enough than him that their liaison causes heads to turn.

The production, directed by Barbara Oliver, offers a cast of characters with revelations that, while believable, don’t pack a lingering emotional response. This “John Gabriel Borkman” reveals a tortured family, yet its troubles don’t touch the soul.

John Gabriel Borkman

Presented by Aurora Theatre Company

Where: 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays; 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes May 9
Tickets: $34 to $45
Contact: (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org

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Leslie Katz

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