Review: ‘A Doll’s House’

Greg Matthew jAnderson and Cher Alvarez in “A Doll’s House.” (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

RECOMMENDED

Where: Writers Theatre,
Gillian Theatre,
325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
When: through Dec. 15
Tickets: $35-$80
Phone: 847-242-6000

 

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

What do you do when a classic becomes rather archaic, but its message remains relevant? That’s the dilemma facing anyone who wants to stage Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” which premiered in December,1879, in Copenhagen.

Writers Theatre’s solution (presented in an earlier form by Definition Theatre in 2015) is a streamlined 95-minute adaptation by artistic director Michael Halberstam and Sandra Delgado, performed in the intimate Gillian Theatre. Ibsen’s three acts have been condensed into one, a few characters have been deleted, and the dialogue has been both compressed and modernized.

Is the result an improvement on the original? Well, not really, but it does align the proto-feminist drama about a woman who leaves a repressive marriage more closely with contemporary sensibilities. Although the casting is for practical reasons, even the fact that Nora Helmer’s three children are not seen—they’re only heard offstage—shifts our perceptions, making the reality of her abandonment of them less palpable.

Writers’ production, directed by Lavina Jadhwani, also changes, sometimes subtly and sometimes not, how we see the characters and their relationships, especially with Nora. As played by Cher Álvarez, she’s a towering presence, physically as well as figuratively, who starts out as a pampered upper-middle-class wife and gradually begins to become conscious of the struggles of those around her. They—with one exception—are portrayed more sympathetically than is sometimes the case.

That exception is her husband Torvald. In the hands of Greg Matthew Anderson (a late replacement, admittedly), he’s a cartoon villain, so patronizing and condescending that his terms of endearment, including “squirrel” and various birds, are demeaning, and the opening night audience practically hissed when he lectured her.

His initial lecture, when Nora, flush with excitement, returns from Christmas shopping laden with presents for the children, is about money—and how frivolously she spends it. Clearly eager to be the wife he wants, she insists the slight indulgence was only because of the holiday and his recent promotion to bank manager with “heaps” of money. At the same time, she engages in tiny acts of rebellion like sneaking forbidden macarons that she keeps hidden.

Nora’s exuberance and self-involvement peak with a visit from her old school friend, Christine (Tiffany Renee Johnson). Recently widowed and looking for work, she wants help, but Nora’s offer to ask Torvald to give her a job comes only after reveling in her own good fortune, albeit with apologies for talking so much about herself. She also reveals her suffering and secret source of pride: When she was a newlywed eight years earlier and her husband was ill, she borrowed a large sum of money so they could follow doctor’s orders to go to Italy for his recovery. Now, when she seems to be spending wildly, she’s actually scrimping to pay back the loan.

That loan drives much of the plot, which is fraught with ironies and reversals. Because women in Norway weren’t allowed to borrow money at the time, Nora committed the crime of forging her dying father’s signature to get it. Her creditor, Krogstad (Adam Poss), has fallen on hard times; to save his family, he appeals to her to keep Torvald from dismissing him, threatening to reveal her crime to her husband. But Torvald, at Nora’s entreaty, has hired Christine to replace Krogstad, a man he hates for….forging a signature. To make matters more complicated, Christine is aghast when she learns Nora borrowed from Krogstad. She warns that he’s a dangerous man, even though it turns out he was the beau she abandoned to make a more practical marriage.

Nora is frightened and revolted by Krogstad’s demands and becomes increasingly frantic as her doom—or what she thinks will be her doom—approaches. To keep Torvald from collecting Krogstad’s damning letter from the locked letter box, she practices a tarantella for the next night’s party so badly—she resembles a madwoman—that he agrees to help her rehearse. She thinks about asking for a loan from family friend, Dr. Rank (Bradley Grant Smith), but is put off by his declaration of love for her and possibly by learning that he is dying.  She contemplates committing suicide to save her husband from the shame of her crime, although she’s convinced he will come to her defense.

Of course, Torvald does not respond to the bombshell as expected, and his single-minded concern with his own reputation and condemnation of Nora, even forbidding her any contact with her children, spark her transformation into a mature woman capable, arguably too capable, of articulating everything that has been wrong with the marriage. The reprieve, with him believing things can go back to the way they were, doesn’t help, and he’s ultimately reduced to a state of incomprehension.

While these final confrontations are blistering, and the added coda after the door doesn’t quite slam is poignant, the problem is that we can’t imagine any compelling reason why Álvarez’s Nora married Anderson’s Torvald in the first place. There’s no chemistry between them, nor does her professed love seem to have any foundation, in sexual attraction or otherwise.

Johnson’s Christine comes off much better. Her behavior can be interpreted as a betrayal of her friend, but here she’s acting for Nora’s own good as well as her own. Poss’s Krogstad also inspires sympathy, as he is determined to keep his family together and is a somewhat reluctant blackmailer. We feel even sorrier for Smith’s loyal, rejected Dr. Rank, and Amy J. Carle gives uncommon depth to the maid Anne Marie, particularly when Nora questions her about the child of her own she gave up to be her nanny.

Writers’ in-the-square staging serves the play extremely well. Arnel Sancianco’s scenic design features a birdcage-like overhead latticework and a fainting couch with a swan back. Sarah Hughey’s lighting is lovely, particularly for the finale. Izumi Inaba’s period costumes are perfect, from the many flounces on Nora’s gowns to Krogstad’s not-so-impeccable suits. Everything adds up to “A Doll’s House” that’s geared to our time but not entirely convincing.