Review: A Challenging DOLL’S HOUSE at Everyman Theatre

With the current prominence of the Barbie movie, doll’s houses are much on the public mind. In the movie, the heroine’s maturity is partly expressed in her leaving her doll’s house and indeed the entire world that encompasses it. So too with Nora Helmer, heroine of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, now being given a loving revival at Everyman Theatre. Nora’s departure, topped off with a famous door slam, removes her from her house, her town, her husband and her family, and opens the door to potential growth – not just for herself but also for those she departs from.

What has led Nora (Megan Anderson) to this moment, though presented in the orderly shape of a well-made 19th-century melodrama, is nonetheless fairly chaotic from an emotional standpoint. Ibsen’s script relentlessly wriggles out of any attempt to integrate the tone or to make total sense of any character’s trajectory. Translators and directors must bestir themselves to pull the whole of it together via choices in cutting or emphasis. Director/adaptor Joanie Schultz’s stated approach leans away from casting Nora’s husband Torvald (Danny Gavigan) as a total villain, even though he’s usually presented as one, and most of the damning evidence against him remains in the script after Schultz’s revisions. In keeping with this strategy, Nora’s flaws are not glossed over, in fact they seem to be emphasized. By contrast, the recent Broadway staging with Jessica Chastain as Nora took an easier tack, leaving Torvald unambiguously in the wrong, and giving Nora a more consistent perceptiveness as the “teachable moments” in her journey marched by. The audience’s awareness of what Nora had noted along the way paid dramatic dividends when, at the end, Nora unloaded on Torvald; we had seen her understanding growing, and her turnabout did not seem, as it did here (a bit), to come from out of the blue. Still, Schultz’s approach is at least as consistent with Ibsen’s script.

Whatever the approach, we learn in short order at the beginning of A Doll’s House that, like an election, impecuniousness has consequences. Before the action began, Torvald, a lawyer who serves as a bank director, had come down with an unnamed disease (probably tuberculosis), and needed to go abroad to take a lifesaving cure; the loan Nora took out to finance the cost of that existentially necessary voyage was unobtainable without an act of forgery and fraud which Nora hid from Torvald. A flaw in the execution of that forgery has, however, now left Nora and her unwitting husband open to blackmail. Repaying the loan has also subtly but greatly deformed Nora and Torvald’s marriage. Nor are Nora and Torvald alone in being misruled by money; the lack of it has also deformed the lives of Krogstad, the blackmailer (James J. Johnson), his inamorata and Nora’s old friend Kristine (Tuyét Thị Phạm), the nursemaid Anne Marie (Helen Hedman), and possibly even the family friend Dr. Rank (Bruce Randolph Nelson). “Money” is in fact one of the most frequently-used words in the script.

The innovation here was that Ibsen used the premise of Nora’s act of forgery to train our attention on the way that money could function as an engine of sexual inequality. Ibsen famously denied being a feminist, but it would be hard to see or read A Doll’s House without perceiving that conventional society’s shaping of gender roles is the greatest villain in the play; nor could one fail to note that, not coincidentally, the female characters are hobbled far more than the male ones by a want of money. The impossibility of Nora’s position maps directly from the demands placed on her as a married woman in a world where money is short and husbands are supposed to be the wage-earners, and wives encouraged to act with subservience and childishness – with dolldom, in short. With all the desperate backing and filling that Nora does to cover up her forgery and pay back the loan and save her husband’s life and reputation, by the end the demands on her will prove overwhelming, as, it is implied, they would for almost any woman. She may be flawed, but her flaws are not classical tragic flaws; the flaws that matter lie in the society, not in Nora. If Ibsen’s is not a feminist analysis, it would be hard to imagine what would be.

The decision Nora makes at the end to concentrate on herself, even at the expense of vacating the dollhouse and her life and family in it, while debatable and debated to this day, is not inevitably commanded by the logic of the play, but it is understandable within that logic. Understandable is not unassailable.

It is telling that the truly childish characters, her three children, are all kept offstage. The strength of Nora’s maternal affection remains unknown; we never see her interacting with the human beings who should be its objects. Their removal doubtless lowers production costs and furthermore facilitates the running time reduction to 90 minutes without intermission that Schultz says partly structured her revisions to the play, but it also lowers the audience’s sense of the stakes, and of the children as potential counterarguments to Nora’s choices, since the children, being out of sight, are not only out of Nora’s mind, but mostly out of ours. It’s quite evidently a sign of the Darwinian impact money can exert on parenting that nanny Anne-Marie removed herself from her own children’s lives to look after Nora’s before the play starts, as Anne-Marie makes it clear she had no financial alternative. When Nora, who is possessed of a financial alternative that Anne-Marie could only envy, abandons the children anyway, what are we supposed to think? The explanation Ibsen would probably offer is that, whoever is to blame, Nora simply can’t be held responsible for needing to leave any more than Anne-Marie can. Yet there remain different degrees of need.

I noticed, and perhaps the audience was intended to notice, that the impressive set (by Chelsea Warren in an apparent local debut) doubles down on the doll’s house metaphor. The living room where everything takes place departs from Ibsen’s stage directions which locate the front door elsewhere in the house; in this set, the front door sits right in the middle of the back wall. And what a door! It is huge and out of human scale. The characters all look like dolls next to it, as well as next to the wall hanging that abuts it on both flanks. The world that the door lets out into is perpetually a bleak, dark midwinter night. The home, then, is made to feel as if it is the place that succors life from the threat of a forbidding world that starts right at the door’s frame. Perhaps this bit of design conveys as well that the house is a safe haven – but a fragile one, as a surprise stage effect I shall not describe effectively conveys its frangibility. I assume that the subliminal message was that Nora’s sortie into the world outside at the end is a step into bleakness and risk, as well as freedom and a larger-scale world. (By way of interesting contrast, the back wall of the set in the Chastain production was the actual back wall of the theater, and Nora’s final exit was through a real stage door in that wall. Nora disappeared onto midsummer Broadway, not Nordic winter.)

I should also mention here the David Burdick costumes, fully up to his usual form (as can be seen in the accompanying photo). They are at once sumptuous and period-correct.

I’ve often lauded Everyman for adhering to a repertory casting format, where the same slowly-evolving corps of actors works together in many plays over many seasons and years. The fruits of that kind of collaboration were on display here, as five of the six performers were members of the company, and the polished professionalism and the easy interaction among the actors was evident.

The first observation about Anderson’s Nora as about anyone’s must be that it’s a hard role to play, and that that’s on Ibsen. There are discontinuities in Nora’s character that are hard to assess. Has Nora been faking childishness or is she, like Barbie, growing out of it as she goes along? Is she ignoring Torvald’s boorishness or is she silently keeping in how offended she is? She exhibits, to some degree, traits not found together in nature. Arguably she is sometimes more an embodied idea than a person. And Ibsen keeps driving Nora through strenuous dissimulation, complete with strenuous dancing and strenuous, not to mention near-farcical, juggling of characters in and out of parts of the house in order to keep lies from spilling out. Whatever Ibsen thought he was doing with the character inside, Anderson aces the job of enacting the chaos on her surface.

Her counterpart, Danny Gavigan as Torvald, faces a different kind of challenge, more specific to this production. Schultz has said she wanted to structure this show so as to “give Torvald a fighting chance.” The thing is, I don’t think Ibsen wrote him as deserving of one. He may often deserve pity as much as contempt, but he always deserves contempt, if only for the creepy way he talks of his wife as his property, a propensity particularly notable when he’s trying to make love to her. If only for the way he can only see the blackmail in light of how it affects him, not the way it affects Nora. If only for his insufferable moral priggishness. And mostly for his failure to appreciate Nora. Gavigan, seemingly tasked with showing Torvald’s tiny to nonexistent good side, can’t and so doesn’t accomplish that. But he does a perfectly satisfactory job of portraying a very small, very unimaginative, very sanctimonious, very selfish human being, which is no small accomplishment.

The rest of the cast did not face such impossible challenges, but nonetheless acquitted themselves admirably. Bruce Randolph Nelson, a fixture of the Baltimore theater, makes a full-course meal out of the smaller part of the dying Dr. Rank, rendering beautifully Rank’s hopeless love for Nora, his physician’s detachment from his own dissolution, and his zest for life even at the end of it. Tuyét Thị Phạm takes a character who is as much a melodramatic plot contrivance as an imagined human being and somehow humanizes her. We only learn bits and pieces of her backstory, but we can sense it’s all there. James J. Johnson’s character is equally a stock figure, the relentless and somewhat unctuous blackmailer, and yet Johnson almost succeeds in making us believe in a late-innings change of heart, though that change must too be viewed as fundamentally Ibsen’s melodramatic contrivance.  And Helen Hedman’s over-flat affect while recounting her necessary abandonment of her children and subsequent near-loss of contact with them is heartbreaking.

The fact remains that with all of the difficulties and shortcomings I’ve noted, and some I haven’t, Nora and her Doll’s House continue to fascinate as much as they infuriate us. We still keep score as we witness the accumulation of offenses of the male world against Nora. We still await the bracing moments of straight talk she’s consciously or unconsciously storing up for her husband at the end. Nora versus the world is a match we shall always willingly watch replayed. It is perhaps the mark of any classic play that we keep coming back to it despite any imperfections. Ibsen was onto something big with his blast at sexism and destructive marital politics in a world of limited economic opportunity. It still opens eyes and hearts. And the rest is just static.

Subscribe for Updates


When you submit your email below, you'll receive emails from me with notificaitons of new theater reviews posted to this site, along with announcements about my plays, including my forthcoming book.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Subscribe for Updates


When you submit your email below, you'll receive emails from me with notificaitons of new theater reviews posted to this site, along with announcements about my plays, including my forthcoming book.

You have Successfully Subscribed!