That doesn't make the play, or the production, a total success. For one thing, the cast plays the final collision of the three elders—all fighting for Erhart's love—for laughs, which may well be the best of the poor choices available, but doesn't flow entirely comfortably from the earlier stark portraits of these sad characters. And the final scene in the snow does indeed drag on.
But the production shows this problematic work in as good a light as you're likely to see, revealing among other things the humor buried in the sniping dialogue. Ms. Shaw—whom, along with Mr. Rickman, the younger generation will recognize from the Harry Potter films—and Ms. Duncan jointly captivate as sisters who live distantly yet with a world of old history weighing them down; each has poignant moments, as does Mr. Rickman, biting through Borkman's sourness to touch us even through our exasperation at his mean sarcasm.
The sound of Borkman's footsteps above mark the dry passage of Gunhild's broken years, while his own days sail by under the ticking of a grandfather clock. His son's escape from the clutches of the colorless household shows Borkman his own way out of the deep northern freeze. Whether it presages any release for either of the sisters is left to the imagination, but their clasping of hands at the end shows at least that life does go on and that family can mean something—even if no one's ready for that thing called "happiness."
John Gabriel Borkman plays through Feb. 6 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater, Brooklyn, NY.
Photos by Richard Termine. Previous page: Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman. This page: Marty Rea, Cathy Belton, Lindsay Duncan, Fiona Shaw.