by Mike Hoban
‘A Doll’s House’ – Written by Henrik Ibsen, Adaptation by Bryony Lavery; Directed by Melia Bensussen; Scenic Design by James Noone; Costume Design by Michael Krass; Lighting Design by Dan Kotlowitz; Sound Design & Original Music, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. Presented by the Huntington Theatre at 264 Huntington Ave., Boston through February 5th.
It is easy to see why “A Doll’s House” – now being given a powerful staging by the Huntington at the BU Theatre – is viewed as a feminist play, despite being written by a man. Henrik Ibsen’s classic has at least one of the key elements of second stage modern feminism – the concept that women could no longer be treated as possessions (or in “Doll’s House” – as something akin to pets) by their significant others. What was nearly inconceivable, however, is the fact that it had been written in 1879, and not 1979. This somewhat (2011) new adaptation by British playwright Bryony Lavery (a woman) is making its U.S. debut, and updates some of the language to make it more relatable to modern audiences. This was my first exposure to the play, and it appears that the new adaptation (which I was assured didn’t veer materially from the original) succeeds brilliantly.
Set in late 19th century Norway, the story involves Nora, a mother of three young children, and her husband Torvald, a lawyer who has just earned the position of director at the local bank. It’s just before Christmas, when and Nora comes in with an armload of packages, Torvald calls out from his study, “Is that my little lark twittering out there?” Normally, such a greeting might be viewed as a silly term of endearment, but as the play goes on, his constant references to Nora as a little bird (or squirrel) seem to be aimed more at maintaining a position of dominance rather than expressing affection.
He begins by scolding her like a child for spending too much money on Christmas gifts, and accuses her of buying sweets for herself (macaroons to be exact – which she did, of course), which only reinforces some of the controlling aspects of his behavior that become glaringly apparent as the plot progresses. Her response is a kind if sexually charged people pleasing, and she earns her rewards in the form of a small sum of money that he gives her after the belittling. It soon becomes apparent that this is how the two communicate, and for a couple with an eight year marriage and three kids, it still seems a little like unhealthy teenage dating behavior. But it appears to work – at least until it doesn’t anymore.
The couple receives a pair of guests, Kristine Linde (Marinda Anderson), Nora’s childhood friend whom she hasn’t seen in years, and Dr. Rank, the “best friend” of the couple, who is in failing health. Kristine is in need of a job for both income and a sense of purpose, and when she tells her friend that she feels “unspeakably empty” since she has no children to take care of and no money her husband passed, Nora feels compelled to tell her of her own troubles. Nora confesses that she committed fraud some years before to raise money to save her then-sick husband’s life (which she rather childishly believes would have no legal repercussions due to her well-intentioned motives), setting in motion a brilliantly structured and complex (but perfectly plausible) plot that elevates “A Doll’s House” to its lofty perch among the great plays.
Andrea Syglowski, who won both the IRNE and Elliot Norton awards for Best Actress for her stunning performance in “Venus in Fur” at the Huntington in 2014, again gives a masterful performance, particularly when she begins to decompensate as her well-intentioned crime threatens to destroy her and her family. And her stunning transformation later on from mouse (or bird, I guess) to someone who sees the truth and takes action is something to behold. The rest of the cast is solid as well, with another terrific performance by Huntington regular Nael Nacer as the despised Krogstad, who undergoes his own magnificent conversion of character. Sekou Laidlow is convincing as the domineering and prideful Torvald, and supporting cast members Anderson, Webb, Lizzie Milanovich (Helene), and the brilliant Adrianne Krstansky (as the nursemaid Anne-Marie) are effective. Kudos also to set designer James Noone, whose simple but elegant set gives way to the spectacular closing sequence.
Ibsen insisted that he was not “consciously work(ing) for the women’s rights movement” when writing his play, but “A Doll’s House” still makes a powerful statement about taking action when the truth becomes so painfully glaring. You don’t have to be a feminist to thoroughly enjoy this powerful work, just a fan of fan of great work done well. See it. For more info, go to: http://www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/2016-2017/a-dolls-house/