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The Problem is Convention: A Doll’s House at Everyman Theatre

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Everyman has been kind to Henrik Ibsen—or Ibsen has been kind to Everyman. This writer remembers with pleasure Deborah Hazlett’s just-over-the-the hill Hedda Gabler in 2003 and the company’s lavish—and harrowing—production of Ghosts in 2015.

This season, Everyman leads off with an innovative staging of A Doll’s House, the play for which Ibsen is best known. A Doll’s House, or more accurately, “A Doll Home,” premiered in Copenhagen, in December, 1879. Within a year there were productions all over Europe; A Doll’s House is still playing all over the world. 

Discussions of A Doll’s House usually turn on whether the play is about the emancipation of women or about individual freedom in general. The first view leads to the portrayal of Nora Helmer as the plaything of her domineering husband, Torvald, and her cynical father. (Nora was Torvald’s reward for covering up her father’s misuse of public funds.) All is well until Nora forges a will in order to borrow money to take Torvald abroad for his health. When Torvald learns of the scheme, he threatens to disown Nora. The danger passes, but Nora, hurt and disillusioned, denounces Torvald for exploiting her and leaves him to seek her true identity.

This production, an adaption by Joanie Schultz, who also directed, takes the other view, that the play is about the way that social conventions limit honest communication and distort behavior. Both Nora and Torvald have been thoughtlessly playing out their social roles until the exposure of Nora’s forgery, for all of her good intentions, shatters the scaffolding supporting their lives.

Nora, her trust in Torvald gone, has no option but to return to an uncertain welcome from her family. Her departure leaves Torvald with three small children on his hands and his future at the bank in doubt. For that reason Ibsen referred to A Doll’s House as “the tragedy of contemporary life” in his notes.

 

Danny Gavigan as Torvald and Megan Anderson as Nora, photo by Kiirstn Pagan Photography
Tuyết Thị Phạm as Kristine Linde and Megan Anderson as Nora, photo by Kiirstn Pagan Photography
James J. Johnson as Nils Krogstad and Tuyết Thị Phạm as Kristine Linde, photo by Kiirstn Pagan Photography

The challenge that actors playing Nora face is how to make the transition, in the final scene, from doll to assertive woman convincing. Megan Andersen, as Nora, offers an original solution. Although she flatters Torvald, letting him call her his “squirrel,” and makes him feel masterful, she treats the other characters with less innocence and more authority, tossing her head and jutting her chin to punctuate her lines, to the audience’s delight. 

Anderson goes even further in the famous tarantella scene. Instead of spinning, terrified, out of control and collapsing into Torvald’s arms, sobbing, Anderson undergoes an out-of-body experience; the music rises, the lights change, and Nora appears to be dancing orgiastically, like the maenads in Euripides’ Bacchae. The suggestion is that Nora has discovered sources of feminine emotional power that are deeper and more powerful than her world has cared to confront. At the end of the play, she will turn that power on her husband.

 

Danny Gavigan as Torvald and Megan Anderson as Nora, photo by Kiirstn Pagan Photography
Tuyết Thị Phạm as Kristine Linde and Megan Anderson as Nora, photo by Kiirstn Pagan Photography

Directors tend to treat Torvald as Nora’s primary antagonist, making him smug and controlling. It is to Schultz’s credit that in this production Danny Gavigan as Torvald is both capable and gracious. (Ibsen insisted that in Stockholm, Torvald be played by a well-known matinee idol of the day.) Torvald’s tragedy is that he is so deeply invested in role as father and breadwinner that he cannot see Nora’s point of view or reply to her effectively in the final scene.

As Dr. Rank, Bruce Randolph Nelson has to pull off a character shift of his own. In the second act we must realize that his world-weariness covers his love for Nora. Nelson finally makes his declaration, then trivializes it by slapping himself on the wrist. Helen Hedman is suitably patient as the Helmers’ maid. James J. Johnson never achieves the degree of menace, or pathos, that Nils Krogstadt embodies. Kristine Linde, played by Tuyết Thị Phạm, brings down the Helmers’ house by insisting that Torvald know the whole story, but Phạm could bring more weight to the scene. 

David Burdick’s costumes are accurate and supportive. Dr. Rank visits the Helmers for what he knows will be the last time drunk and wearing an absurd Italian courtier’s outfit. The big moment for Chelsea Warren’s set is the very last one: after Nora slams the door, the curtains across the living room wall drop like her illusions and she appears on the street side of the door, where she tellingly hesitates before the lights go out altogether.

 

Danny Gavigan as Torvald, photo by Kiirstn Pagan Photography
Megan Anderson as Nora, photo by Kiirstn Pagan Photography

Photos courtesy of Everyman Theatre

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