This article is by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association, in response to Raven Theatre’s production of A Doll’s House. It isn’t technically a review, though there is a review incorporated within it. It’s more of an extended explanation of why I reacted the way I did to this production despite the clear merits that it possesses. Thank you for your indulgence. Photo by Michae Brosilow.
I have always had an odd relationship with Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Although I fully understand its historical role as a proto-feminist drama, and I do appreciate the ways in which Ibsen forever changed the way that plays are written and performed, I find myself troubled about its central character, Nora Helmer. I know I am supposed to be impressed (or even, in the case of Ibsen’s contemporary audiences, shocked) by Nora’s sudden transformation at the end of the play into someone who can stand on her own after so many years of being a plaything for both her father and her husband, but in all honesty I am not, and there is a simple reason for that: I don’t actually believe that she is transformed at all.
Hear me out.
This is a woman who has always enjoyed the roles into which men have thrust her. She loves playing the little “songbird” for Torvald. She has a wonderful time flirting with him and with Dr. Rank and playing games with her children. She delights at the surreptitious pleasure of sneaking forbidden macaroons. She thrills at the exciting possibilities that her husband’s new job presents for her with its newfund stability and influx of cash. She flits about her home and through her life like a butterfly, knowing little to nothing about the ways in which the world works and caring even less.
Speaking to her long-lost friend Christine, she focuses their conversation on self-centered braggadocio, acting every bit the “child” that her friend believes her to be. And it’s true: though she can justifiably feel proud of finding a way to save her husband’s life—though the method she used goes against the very core of his beliefs—even this is revealed to be a kind of game she has been playing. A consummate (if private) actress, Nora revels in the little roles she performs: “songbird”/”squirrel,” mother (with a nanny doing all of the heavy lifting), homemaker, secret savior, friend. Each role requires something different from her, and though she actually learns nothing from any of them, she has a wonderful time playing them.
Getting needed funds from a man she loathes, Krogstad, she is so caught up in the drama of what she is doing that she doesn’t even try to understand its significance, which is something Christine comprehends immediately. Nora’s fairy-tale mind even convinces her of the inevitability of an absurd “wonderful thing”: that Torvald would actually step in and claim to be the guilty one, sacrificing his reputation in order to save hers. It’s as if she has never even met the man, who values his morally pristine world higher than anything else. In reality, it is Torvald’s condemnation of her act that is inevitable, and it is only in the wake of his anger and disgust that Nora conceives of her dramatic exit, which she performs, as she does everything, pretty much on a whim with no clue where it will lead and with attention to the theatrics of it: she even changes her costume.
Nora is, throughout much of the play, a character of light comedy. She does what is expected of her as a wife, playing the roles that her chauvinistic husband demands of her. Contrasted with the world-weary and far more grounded Christine, she is so utterly frivolous that her friend actually decides to allow her to see how ridiculous her notions are instead of letting Krogstad save her from their consequences. Christine understands that Nora can only grow up if she stops living in fantasy worlds where she can transport herself by dancing the tarantella or whatever Torvald gets into his head. Far from actually altering her sense of reality, though, Nora’s experience simply leads her to another role she can play, one she must perform on her own. (The extremity of her emotional changes regarding her children are another example of a mind that fails to think things through realistically. A true feminist heroine would surely have understood that Torvald’s admonitions and fears about her bringing them up are the product of his own warped sense of morality, but Nora accepts them at face value…because walking out on all of them is far more dramatic a final statement.)
It isn’t really that I don’t believe Nora’s actions here are impressively modern. Clearly, going out on her own in a world in which that simply isn’t done is a bold and progressive move. But in Nora’s case, no matter what it portends, it is mostly prompted by her need to play one more role. She even leaves with a monologue that lets her conceive of yet another dream she can cling to, one in which “the most wonderful thing of all” (equality with her husband) is possible. It is certainly the right vision to have if you happen to be a feminist heroine, but it represents such an abrupt change of perception and personality that Torvald could be forgiven if his reaction were sheer disbelief. He suddenly finds himself in a completely different play with a completely different Nora performing opposite him.
It is this baggage that I bring with me to every new production of Ibsen’s play. What I look for every time is a way in which the director, the designers, and the actress playing Nora can convince me that a real person could and would act this way with sincerity rather than as a scene to play out. I found that in Writers Theatre’s recent production. The new one at Raven Theatre, directed by Lauren Shouse, does an excellent job of showing Nora’s increasing panic, especially in the powerful—and dramatic—tarantella scene. Here, unlike many other Noras I have seen, Amira Danan invests so much of her soul into this dance and plays it with such pain—based on the recognition that this moment is basically prolonging Torvald’s discovery of her deception—that the moment feels absolutely right in all of its conflicting emotional narratives. And the fact that Gage Wallace’s objectifying Torvald sees only the technique of the dance and none of its distress brings it home perfectly.
Still, despite the undeniable power of this scene and the strength of the performances overall, also including Mike Dailey’s glum Dr. Rank, Nelson Rodriguez’s Krogstad, Shadana Patterson’s Christine, and the two family servants played by Carmen Liao and Kelli Walker, I found myself remaining at a distance from this A Doll’s House. Maybe it was Eileen Rozicki’s set, an imposing monochromatic gray construction that expands the entire width of Raven’s extremely wide stage and feels more industrial than homey. (My husband said that the dozens of small drawers on the main wall reminded him of a hardware store, and I can’t disagree.) Even the fireplace did little to warm things up, continuing the dull color scheme everywhere except for the small fire itself. (It doesn’t help either that the only significant spot of color anywhere is a three foot tall clearly artificial Christmas tree sparsely decorated in a red flower ribbon. Both the tree’s blatant visual discordancy with the late 1800s Norwegian setting and Nora’s inexplicable delight in how it looks took me right out of the play.)
One of the problems with a set this expansive is the need for Shouse to take advantage of all of it. In this case, that need results in a restive and agitated Nora rapidly and repeatedly traversing the significant distances from table to couch to fireplace, a manic movement pattern that, while appropriate later in the play, seems forced during early scenes. Perhaps the intent is to help us to see her as a songbird or squirrel; I just saw it as frenetic and unnecessary, and it further removed Nora in my mind from a sense of realism.
None of this takes anything away from Danan’s towering performance, which shows her character’s emotional breakdown about as clearly as I’ve ever seen it. Wallace too is strong as Torvald. Playing the character with a default bemused expression, Wallace easily lets us see what the husband thinks of his silly and frivolous wife, which makes both his eleventh hour explosion and his final bewildered moment more powerful. Still, even in the play’s coda, which finds a newly free Nora standing with no clue where to go in a snowfall made of cut-up paper (an effect that didn’t help), all I could see was her posturing and acting; I could not see the real character change that Ibsen wanted us to see. I can blame myself for this, but ultimately I can’t make an unequivocal recommendation of this production.
A Doll’s House is now playing at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St, Chicago, IL, until Mar 22. The show runs approximately two hours; there is one intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.