Part of the fun – if you can call it that – of Ibsen's The Wild Duck is figuring out just which character is supposed to represent the beleaguered wild duck, displaced from its natural setting and struggling to adapt to a new world.
Ibsen lays on the (constantly shifting) symbolism with a trowel, including the theme of blindness versus sight and the question of whether life, like photographs, can benefit from a bit of judicious retouching.
The photographer in Quintessence Theatre Group's modern-dress, updated, and nontraditionally cast adaptation of the 19th-century classic is Hjalmar Ekdal (David Pica), a self-deluded fellow whose wife, Gina (Brett Ashley Robinson), is impelled to prop him up.
Hjalmar is alternately supported and baited by his old friend, Gregers Werle (Tom Carman). An unalloyed idealist, Gregers rightfully despises his wealthy, corrupt father (Michael Brusasco) but seems to wreak havoc wherever he goes.
The young men's fathers were once business partners, but Old Ekdal (Paul Hebron), having served prison time for fraud, is now a broken man who performs menial office tasks and putters around the Ekdal household in a bathrobe. It's a three-generational ménage whose emotional heart is Hedwig, the teenage daughter charmingly played by the precocious (and highly professional) Deysha Nelson.
All four male leads deliver strong performances as differently flawed types, with Carman offering an unusually likable and seductive take on Gregers and Pica portraying a Hjalmar whose insecurities lurk destructively just beneath a self-satisfied surface.
Director Rebecca Wright shares credit for the sleek contemporary adaptation with the Quintessence ensemble. In an apparent bid for relevance and what the press release calls "gender parity," she has not only cast African American actors as Ekdal's wife and child, but also has given women some of the men's roles. Mary Tuomanen, the 2017 F. Otto Haas Emerging Philadelphia Theatre Artist Award-winner at the Barrymores, does a nice (unexpectedly) comic turn as Relling, the Ekdals' doctor-neighbor, who comes closest to voicing Ibsen's perspective.
Quintessence is presenting The Wild Duck in conjunction with Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in what it calls its "power and idealism repertory." There are unmissable echoes of the #MeToo movement in the situation of Gina, a onetime housekeeper who was supposedly hounded for sex by her employer, the elder Werle. Robinson's Gina is more feisty than fragile – a survivor rather than a victim.
In the face of the playwright's muddled symbolism and lengthy exposition, Wright moves this production briskly along. But she hasn't quite surmounted its tonal challenges. The balance between comedy and tragedy tips too far toward the ridiculous, blunting the emotional impact of the play's climax.
Have we mentioned that, in addition to the morphing symbolic fowl, Ibsen populates the Ekdal household with an actual wild duck? He (or she) inhabits the garret, along with a passel of rabbits and other small creatures that Old Ekdal enjoys hunting.
In lieu of an attic, Em Arrick's scenic design presents a colorful magic garden, visible rather than hidden from view. Above the doorway leading to that ground-level space is a jumble of picture frames, all empty, suggesting that it is up to us – as it is for Ibsen's characters – to compose reality.
Through April 29 by the Quintessence Theatre Group at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. Tickets: $30-$35 $15 students and 21-and-under. Information: 215-987-4450 or quintessencetheatre.org