There’s a moment in Quantum Theatre’s production of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman that I won’t soon forget.  Gunhild Borkman (Bridget Connors), reacts to her son Erhard (Luka Glinsky)’s announcement that he is packed and ready to leave town with his bohemian lover (Mrs. Wilton, played by Daina Michelle Griffith) by pawing and pecking at his chest like some strange squirrel-bird, her need for his love and his loyalty so desperate and raw that all inhibitions and conventions of propriety have fallen away.  The expressiveness of this moment is emblematic of the production’s unusual approach, an approach that rivetingly captures both the devastating despair and absurd humor of one of Ibsen’s less well-known plays.

The action in the play is primarily psychological. The scene opens on the downstairs living quarters of Gunhild Borkman, eight years after her husband John Gabriel Borkman (Martin Tulip) served a five-year jail sentence for embezzling funds from the bank he managed. During those eight years Gunhild has spitefully refused to speak to Borkman, who in turn has confined himself to the second floor of their home, arrogantly scheming his grandiose “restoration” to a position of social and financial power.  The action begins when Gunhild’s twin sister Ella Rentheim (Robyn Walsh) arrives unexpectedly, with hopes of convincing Erhart (whom she took under her care as a child during the years of Borkheim’s imprisonment) to return home with her and comfort her in her dying months. What ensues is a battle among the elders for possession of the son, for control over the family legacy, and above all, for love, mastery, and power.

As is usual in Ibsen, the back story is both complicated and important, haunting the present action like an unseen but influential character.  Drama critics consider Ibsen a master of exposition – in most of his plays he dribbles and drabbles the back story into the dialogue in such a way that you hardly notice that the characters are filling each other in on information they all already know, in order for us to learn the history.  But the master seems to have lost his touch with John Gabriel Borkman; the opening is heavy with awkward exposition, most of it unmotivated and some of it downright mystifying, primarily because it doesn’t become clear until fairly late in the first scene that Ella and Gunhild are sisters, and the mystery of their relationship makes their reasons for rehearsing past events that much more difficult to divine.  The first ten or fifteen minutes of the play are a bumpy washboard road of dialogue along the lines of “It is nearly eight years since we saw each other last”; Connors and Walsh manage to get us relatively smoothly over those bumps by supercharging their character’s rehearsing of past slights and resentments with intense emotional energy.  And director Martin Giles heightens the stakes by having Borkman himself pace above and behind the primary playing space, making him a palpable, hovering presence as the two women bitterly recall the damage he has wrought in their lives.

This is not your grandfather’s buttoned-down, repressed-emotion, naturalist-realist Ibsen.  Giles’s tack is psychological realism by way of expressonism and symbolism, and for the most part it works.  The cast goes all in, and in the process finds surprising insights into the motivations and pieties of the characters. In particular, Martin Tulip’s depiction of the arrogant,  power-hungry Borkman as a man who is simultaneously deeply self-occupied and self-knowledgeable, and utterly blind to who and what he really is makes a fascinating and canny character study of an all-too-familiar type (fill in the blank:  Madoff, Petraeus, etc.).  Ken Bolden is wonderful as the hapless, Chekhovian Foldal, providing an absurd counterpoint to Borkman’s oblivious narcissism.  Connors wears Gunhild’s resentment like an open sore, and watching her physicalization of the character’s need is like seeing a horrific car wreck:  awful and fascinating.  Walsh, Glinsky, Griffith, and Carly Otte (as Frida Foldal) all plumb the (sometimes embarrassing) depths to which their characters sink with brave commitment.  And paradoxically, that commitment ferrets out the surprising humor in Ibsen’s text, prompting laughs of recognition at faults and foibles we recognize as theirs and, perhaps, as our own.

The visual design of this show deserves some particular mention.  The space, one of those abandoned urban locales Quantum specializes in finding, provides a gloomy, stark, semi-decaying structure that echoes the emotional and physical status of the Borkman family. Tony Ferrieri’s set makes good use of the various levels and openings in the cavernous rooms, morphing beautifully towards play’s end from a stuffy dark Norwegian parlor into a wintry snowstorm, in which the characters’ emotional horizon becomes claustrophobically compressed as the spatial arena expands.  Christine Casaus’s costumes eloquently capture each individual character’s personality and social status, and her (I’m assuming deliberately unsubtle) use of the color red to set the younger generation apart from its elders serves the expressive-symbolic tone of the overall production well.