A Doll's House
nytheatre.com review by Allison Taylor
June 7, 2008
When people talk about the text being "sacred" in theatre, I wonder if they actually mean the dialogue. Stage directions and setting descriptions often fall by the wayside, whether due to a director's reinterpretation or simple financial impracticality. Straying from a playwright's envisioned setting can lead to unexpected creativity—and it can lead to misinterpretation of the play.
The set design by Mike Billings for Bated Breath Theater Company's new production of A Doll's House bears little resemblance to Ibsen's "comfortable room." No carpeted floor, no "china figures," no "engravings on the walls." Instead, the walls are made up of plushy white squares and the uncarpeted floor is painted white. There are no knickknacks to be found in this stark room—simply a couple of white blocks that double as chairs and drawers. There are no signs of the Christmas season during which the play is set, and the wood-burning stove here is, literally, a white doll house.
Billings and director Helene Kvale (who also provides the new translation) have envisioned the Helmer household not as a comfortable home, but as an insane asylum. Nora even wears a hospital bracelet.
Certainly there is plenty of insanity in A Doll's House, as our heroine frantically tries to prevent her husband, Torvald, from discovering she has committed a serious crime. After forging a signature on a loan she kept secret from Torvald, Nora faces the possibility that her creditor Krogstad might reveal her crime, unless Torvald rehires him at the bank where he has been promoted. (You can read a plot summary here.)
As the Helmers' blissful marriage and social reputation nears implosion, Heddy Lahmann as Nora highlights her undercurrent of madness. She twirls excitedly and leaps unsteadily onto the white blocks to behold her companions. When she dances the tarantella to distract Torvald from reading a letter from Krogstad, her feet wildly stamp out of rhythm and her face scrunches up with exhaustion. Only when Nora decides to leave (and when Torvald questions her sanity), does Lahmann endow Nora with calm rationality. Regrettably, she also gives in to the play's trap—Nora's decision materializes from thin air, her personality turning on a dime.
But then Kvale has trouble drawing out the complexity in all of the characters. The uniformly genteel acting—complete with straight backs and sharp diction—either reveals too much or suggests nothing beneath the surface. Nathan Caron plays Dr. Rank with nerdy charm, but when he tells Nora that he'll die soon, their conversation strangely lacks any sense of tension or foreboding. Peter Mutino plunges into the evilness of Krogstad, glowering and threatening Nora with a nasal drone. But he never highlights Krogstad's desperate need to survive in a cut-throat business or his longing for a friend. Without any sympathetic qualities, it's hard to understand the feelings of his old flame and Nora's pal, Christine, when she reignites their relationship. But Hillary Parker does well to find Christine's ambitious side and her fearful hesitancy, providing a good contrast to Nora's unfocused energy.
But if Nora is a mental patient, then Luke Daniels as a businesslike Torvald acts as her chilly doctor. His movements as clean as his crisp suits, Daniels casually attempts to tame Nora's reckless impulses the way he might examine an unwieldy stock portfolio: with even-tempered curiosity, not with passion. When he calls her his "lark," he does not express his heartfelt love with a shade of patronization—he only asserts that he owns her.
And so if the insane asylum motif doesn't do it, then the frigid chemistry between the Helmers does. Kvale intends to reveal from the get-go that this marriage is a complete and utter sham.
The problem with that goes back to the setting description. There's a reason why Ibsen specified that the play takes place in a "comfortable" room. Ibsen hopes that we, the audience, might want to live in that home or, better yet, see ourselves in that home. Then when Nora begins to understand that she's lived a life of nothingness, we might share in her catharsis. But then we might also wonder whether Nora is right. Is Nora a modern-day Medea for leaving her children, or is she a feminist? Is she selfish and self-indulgent, or is she brave and revolutionary? And are we right to sympathize with her? If we see clearly that this marriage is not a happy one or that this woman is a bit mad, then where do we have to go? We anticipate what's coming. Nora's infamously unexpected exit becomes expected.
There's nothing wrong with experimenting with a sacred text, provided the experimenters understand why it's sacred. We watch A Doll's House not merely to hear Nora's definitive slam—it's to watch the complex journey that leads her to the door.