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‘Little Erik’ updates Ibsen drama to modern-day S.F.

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Marilee Talkington and Joe Estlack appear in Aurora Theatre Co.’s premiere of “Little Erik.” (Courtesy David Allen)

An unhappy marriage cracks like thin ice on a frozen river in “Little Erik.”

Mark Jackson’s new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s “Little Eyolf” moves the great Norwegian playwright’s oft-neglected 1894 drama to a contemporary setting in this unsettling yet absorbing world premiere production at the Aurora Theatre.

Jackson, one of the Bay Area’s most provocative playwright-directors, places the action in a sleek modern home in the woods north of San Francisco.

At first glance, husband and wife Freddie (Joe Estlack) and Joie (Marilee Talkington) seem to have it all. But their marriage is disintegrating.

She’s a relentlessly ambitious tech executive whose company has acquired one fifth of San Francisco. He’s an aspiring author who’s been drifting for months and, as the play begins, announces that his dreams of writing a novel have come to naught.

Both are tormented by their roles in an event that led to the disability of their young son (Jack Wittmayer in the title role), and Joie admits that she wishes she’d never had the boy.

Only Freddie’s half-sister, Andi (Mariah Castle), seems to care for Erik, although it appears she may be leaving town with the architect who built the family home (Greg Ayers as the relentlessly cheerful Bernie.)

The domestic action takes a supernatural turn with the arrival of the Rat Wife (Wilma Bonet, as a Latina domestic worker with a wicked eye), who claims she can lure rodents (and, perhaps, unhappy children) to the bottom of the nearby river.

The elements in this strange admixture of realist and symbolist drama don’t always cohere, and the characters occasionally seem like types rather than fully dimensional people.

Yet Jackson, working with Nina Ball (set design), Christine Crook (costumes), Heather Basarab (lighting), Matt Stines (sound) and Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky (video), brings forth the central issues of Ibsen’s original with keen psychological insight. Marriage and mortality, ambition and narcissism, incest, parenthood and social responsibility swirl through this heady, intensely focused production.

The cast gives committed performances, although the women are generally stronger than the men. Talkington is especially riveting as the steely Joie, who describes herself as “hard” and demands that her “soft” husband bend to her will.

There’s little warmth in their story. “Little Erik” is more concerned with cold truths, and Jackson keeps them coming, right up to the play’s seismic coda. The human struggle is powerful, but nature always wins.

Little Erik
Where: Aurora Theatre Co., 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 28
Tickets: $32 to $50
Contact: (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org