A Doll’s House
At the Writers (Gillian) Theatre by Dan Zeff
Glencoe –In 1879 Henrik Ibsen startled his native Norway and the rest of western Europe with his social drama “A Doll’s House.” The play portrays Nora Helmer, a young middle class Norwegian wife and mother, who recognizes that her married life has been a sham, so she leaves her husband and three children to go out on her own to seek her own identity.“A Doll’s House” (alternately and perhaps more accurately called “A Doll House”) shocked conservative audiences of the time by suggesting that a woman’s first responsibility was to herself and not to social conventions that bound her to a life of domestic servility.
“A Doll’s House” has been one of Ibsen’s most revived plays, its feminist themes connecting with modern audiences. A sequel called “A Doll’s House, part 2” by Lucas Knath stirred much local interest when it was presented in Chicago in 2019. Ibsen obviously struck a nerve that still tingles.
The Writers Theatre has revived “A Doll’s House” in an adaptation by Sandra Delgado and Writers artistic director Michael Halberstam. The adaptation eliminates the original two intermissions and drops a couple of adult characters and three children’s roles. The result is a concise 95-minute one act show that claims to reinvigorate Ibsen’s script for contemporary audiences. Its success is in the eye and ear of the beholder. I prefer the original version.
It’s true that “A Doll’s House” has its creaky elements that rely on coincidences to churn the plot to its explosive finish. But the reduction of the original to its current comparative brevity emphasizes the mechanical plot by stripping away much dialogue that serves as connecting tissue for the unfolding narrative. As a result, the intense final scene erupts with insufficient preparation and the eight year marriage between Nora and her husband Torvald is turned upside down in a matter of a few real time minutes.
In both the original and the adaptation, Nora is portray as a pampered, naïve, shallow young woman living in a cocoon of protection woven by her prig of a husband. The role of Torvald must be one of the most thankless in modern drama. The man is insufferably patronizing toward his wife, who uses her female wiles to wheedle money and favors to get around his smugness. Torvald is revealed at the end of the play as a moral coward, though he may be as much a victim as his wife of society’s marital role playing. Even after Nora walks out, he still doesn’t get it.
The play relies on the actress playing Nora for most of its dramatic interest. The performer has to sell her ninny status at the beginning of the play, finally leading to the shock of recognition that Nora’s life is built on falsity. Her declaration of independence has to be credible. Cher Alvarez gives the role a game try and her performance may acquire depth as the run continues, but on opening night she wasn’t sufficiently able to crawl into Nora’s emotional and psychological skin. Greg Matthew Anderson, one of the area’s most reliable actors, could do nothing more than show Torvald for what he is, self righteous and ultimately a moral coward. The audience practically booed Torvald’s patronizing treatment of his childlike wife.
Nora and Torvald are the dominating characters in the play but at the Writers production the most realistic and persuasive performance comes from Adam Poss and Tiffany Reenee Johnson. Poss plays Krogstad, a man who made a mistake earlier in his life and has been scorned by an unforgiving society ever since. Poss gives Krogtsad’s desperation a human quality that injects a moving realism into the story. Johnson credibly played a woman leading a life almost as desperate as Krogstad’s and the sincerity and naturalism of their performances gives the production its most genuine and sympathetic moments.
The compression of the adaptation makes room for two complementary characters. Family maid Anne Marie (Amy J. Carle) carries her own burdens as an unfulfilled woman, subtly etched by Carle’s few understated but sensitive appearances on the stage. Bradley Grant Smith poignantly renders Dr. Rank, a family friend, dying of a disease passed on by his father (a familiar Ibsen theme). But the adaptation leaves him a little disconnected from the main narrative.
The intimate Gillian Theatre in-the-round stage suits the play’s action, with the set limited to a few pieces of plush furniture (Arnel Sancianco designed the set). Izumi Inaba vividly establishes the period with her historically evocative costumes. Sarah Hughey designed the lighting and Thomas Dixon composed the original music and designed the sound, but where was the sound of the slamming door at the end of the play, one of the most famous sound effects in modern drama)? Gaby Labotka presumably choreographed Nora’s tarantella dance, which seemed more like a St. Vitus dance.
Even though attitudes toward women and marriage have undergone a revolution since the “A Doll’s House” premiere, the play still can claim some social relevance. Still, Nora’s situation may seem extreme to today’s audiences and I heard titters of laughter during the performance that I’m sure were not intended by the playwright. The plotting, relying on dual cases of forged legal documents, is too convenient, but without the device there is no play.
Overall I didn’t find the adaptation illuminating in its condensation. The characters and plot points were preserved, though in reduced form that squeezed some juice out of the narrative. But mostly the play holds the stage and the finale that leads to Nora’s walking out on her husband is still gripping, if too sudden. A more charismatic, or at least more experienced, leading performance would be desirable, though the Writers Theatre actress may get there yet. But overall the production is shorter, but not an improvement.
‘A Doll’s House’ gets a rating of.
“A Doll’s House” runs through December 15 at the Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $35 to $80. Call (847) 242-6000 or visit www.writerstheatre.org.