So why this Doll’s House, right now? Maybe it’s just punching a ticket – the Old Globe Theatre has never before done the most-produced play of the second-most-produced playwright – but I suspect it’s a gender thing.
Henrik Ibsen himself said more than once that A Doll’s House had nothing to do with women’s rights. He saw it more as the struggle of a person to find herself. But Nora Helmer’s stunning decision to fly her gilded cage has resonated with repressed women down through the decades as loudly and emphatically as the slamming door that ends the play.
The Globe production, in the White Theatre, is offered as a “new adaptation” by Anne-Charlotte Hanes Harvey, a retired San Diego State professor, and Kirsten Brandt, a local favorite who also is the director. I’m not sure what the “adaptation” involves. It’s been a long time since my last Doll’s House but this one seems about what I remember: A strangulated though compelling drama about repressed provincials a couple of centuries ago, notable more for the dynamic individualism of the characters than for their particular stories.
As always with translations from unfamiliar languages, there’s no knowing whether Ibsen’s words have been helped or damaged. Probably a great playwright would have found more comfortable rhythms but what seem like rough spots are, I suspect, honest efforts to make the play more accessible. The cadences that inspired authors from Shaw, O’Neill to Albee and Mamet remain largely intact.
This is a splendid antique and needs to be treated as one. Brandt knows this; the production is firmly, almost primly of another era. Sean Fanning’s set is as meticulous as a house museum (though I’m uncomfortable with that spinet piano) and David Lee Cuthbert has lit it with fusty love. Alina Bokovikova’s costumes, which must pass muster at several levels and changes, are sternly correct.
A couple of times, Brandt seems about to goose the era – this Torvald Helmer is more obviously aroused in his domestic sensuality than usual – but, except for some overblown sound cues, decorum is preserved and the acting matches the rest of the décor.
Gretchen Hall treats Nora’s growing self-revelations more as intermittent squalls than a growing tempest. Her dawns of understanding are overcast with what seems to be annoyance. One could get impatient with her.
As her smug husband, the original Mr. Clueless, Fred Arsenault is brisk, efficient and exhaustingly alert to the slightest deviance in the universe he’s creating, an Intelligent reading of the role that leaves little room for emotional cracks.Only Richard Baird, a brilliant actor who the Globe must get to know better, really penetrates the essence of Ibsen as Krogstad, the desperate underling who knows Nora’s secret. In the melodramas the author was surpassing, this character would have been the villain but Baird (and Brandt) realizes he’s but another person trying to survive and makes him therefore more moving.
Nisi Sturgis as Nora’s convenient confidante and Jack Koenig as the melancholy doctor who’s a family friend play these stock characters as written. The Helmer children, thankfully, are played by offstage voices, the old “Down, Fang! Down I say!” effect.
If some point about women’s rights can still be made by this play, then power to it. Likewise the “know thyself” moments. These are battles long since fought and generally won. The reason to seek out this Doll’s House is to supplement one’s knowledge of an immensely important moment in the history of the theatre and to acknowledge a pioneer genius. If that’s punching a ticket, so be it.