Don’t be surprised if American Stage’s A Doll’s House feels a little creaky from time to time. Henrik Ibsen’s realistic plays were modeled on the pièce bien faite of Eugene Scribe and his followers, and that form required an almost mechanistic inevitability of plot, with no room for romantic ecstasies or minimalist ambiguities. In fact, it’s only in its long conclusion that Ibsen bursts the seams of the “well-made play” and forces on his characters — and on us — the unsparing honesty that makes Doll’s House one of the great milestones in the history of women’s liberation. In the searing final conversation of Nora and Torvald Helmer, the subjugation of women is the uncomfortable subject, and 130 years later, we can’t help but find it still germane. When many women in America aren’t paid as much as men for equal labor, when maternity leave and government-supported daycare are still out of reach for most female workers, when the very language we speak still favors men as the default gender, one has to conclude that Ibsen’s play is all-too-relevant. Yes, the dramaturgy is old-fashioned and some of the coincidences too perfect. But if you hold on till the final confrontation, there’s a reward to be had.
Maybe you remember the play from a college course on world theater. Here’s a refresher: Nora Helmer is a happy wife who takes no umbrage at the condescension her husband regularly shows her, who relishes her role as Torvald’s “little squirrel,” and performs for him more like an infant than a grown woman. Of course, Nora has a secret: she surreptitiously funded the southern-European sojourn that mended Torvald’s health when he was ailing, and is now almost through paying back her creditor Nils Krogstad. But trouble arises: Krogstad loses his job at Torvald’s bank (Torvald’s just been named manager), and demands that Nora get him the position back or else. This is no easy task: Torvald despises Krogstad and is insulted that his wife would dare to speak up for the miscreant. Krogstad, on the other hand, threatens to apprise Torvald not just of Nora’s hidden benevolence but also of a crime Nora committed in order to secure the loan. As Nora tries frantically to beat the deadline Krogstad has set for her, her happy marriage, Torvald’s reputation, and the careful illusion that Nora’s willingly created — the helpless, frivolous wife — all hang in the balance. This dollhouse may turn out to be dangerously fragile.
Katherine Michelle Tanner plays Nora, and it’s a mostly wonderful impersonation. Tanner’s Nora is in many ways the child that society has made her: silly, mischievous, even ignorant, but still capable of laboring behind the scenes to save her husband, and then to pay off the debt that she’s incurred in the process. Some actresses play the early Nora as a proto-feminist, but canny Tanner knows better. After all, Ibsen allows this unenlightened character a few small gestures of rebellion — an enjoyment of forbidden macaroons, an urge to say “Damn it to hell” — but beyond these, he paints her as a willing accomplice to her infantilization, more Marilyn Monroe than Meryl Streep.
Only when dancing a tarantella designed to distract her clueless husband does Tanner’s portrayal seem miscalculated: surely she overdoes the violence of this duplicitous dance. But at all other times she’s the right foil for Torvald, impeccably portrayed by Christopher Swan as a man who’s bought totally into society’s depreciation of women, and who honestly loves Nora without finding her a competent adult. Sexist though he may be, Swan’s Torvald is a lot more likable than Steve Garland’s Nils Krogstad. The talented Garland paints Krogstad as a badly wounded character whose viciousness is inseparable from his pain: he would make a good character in a suitably anguished Graham Greene novel. Among the other actors, only Lauren L. Wood as Christine Linde fails to convince: it’s hard to find a complete personality between her lines. But in the smaller part of Dr. Rank, John Woodson seems to have stepped right out of Ibsen’s Norway; I hope to have more opportunities to watch this fine performer. Top-notch also are Jill Davis’ beautiful living room set and Frank Chavez’s period costumes. Seth Gordon’s direction has the look and feel of the late 19th century; for the most part, this is acceptable, though occasionally one feels that one’s stumbled into a museum.
But Doll’s House is seminal. If you can ignore the occasionally too-noticeable machinery, it can still shock and illuminate. We’ve come a long way since Ibsen stood up for women’s rights, but we’ve hardly gone the whole distance. Until we do, this important play will remain pertinent – and even obligatory.