Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
I have a mixed relationship with Nora Helmer, the protagonist of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. On the one hand, her final and decisive action—leaving the home in which she is treated as a frivolous “little songbird”—defines her as a major proto-feminist heroine. On the other, she spends the first 97% of the play perfectly content to act as the empty-headed little doll that her husband Torvald, who is basically a broad caricature of what we now call a male chauvinist, thinks she is. Even her final stand is true to her nature: she makes her life-altering decision capriciously when Torvald fails to live up to her fantasy of him. Nora is, to put it mildly, complicated, a fact that makes her all the more compelling.
I’m happy to say that she is just as compelling in Writers Theatre’s new streamlined version of the play, an adaptation by Sandra Delgado and Michael Halberstam. Directed by Lavina Jadhwani, this new A Doll’s House is a sleek, ninety-minute exploration of Ibsen’s ideas, his characters, and his wit. It’s Ibsen reinvented for a modern audience: all of the joy of the play but none of the excesses.
Nora’s life consists of willingly playing the roles that men define for her, and Cher Álvarez portrays her with all of the energy and enthusiasm that this character exudes. Shopping, playing with her children, entertaining her husband, gently flirting with family friend Dr. Rank (a brooding Bradley Grant Smith), and sneaking an occasional macaroon (which Torvald, played by Greg Matthew Anderson, has forbidden) fill her days and make her happy. However, the sudden appearance of two people from her past threatens the simple joys of her life.
Christine (Tiffany Renee Johnson), an old school friend who has fallen on hard times, arrives for what starts out as a happy reunion but quickly takes on new meaning as both women contrast Christine’s serious, hard life with Nora’s frivolous, undemanding one. But it is the much more ominous arrival of Krogstad (Adam Poss) that truly casts a pall over Nora’s existence. Years before, she borrowed money from him without Torvald’s knowledge, and has been paying it back steadily ever since. But Krogstad has discovered that she forged a signature on the document and now, as his position in Torvald’s bank is in jeopardy, he comes to her with an ultimatum: cajole her husband into letting him stay on or he will tell everything he knows and destroy them both.
Delgado and Halberstam’s script manages to leave all of these complicated relationships intact, and what isn’t here isn’t missed. Even the minor character of Anne Marie, Nora’s housekeeper and former nanny played by Amy J. Carle, feels fleshed out. (This is helped by many little mannerisms devised by Carle and Jadhwani for scene changes.) But it is the relationship of the Helmers that gets the most consideration.
The fact that Anderson is not physically imposing drives home the point that Nora has willingly subverted any sense of self in order to be pleasing to him. Though she often wheedles him into favors (and of course she does sneak the cookies he has proscribed), she’s perfectly happy being his frivolous little songbird. Torvald’s condescending demeanor toward her is just something she takes for granted. Anderson helps us to see that this character is every bit as shallow as Nora: with his constant diminutive nicknames and his generally superior attitude, Torvald has built the perfect little life for himself, one that neither party can see is actually a house of cards.
Álvarez perfectly embodies the ever-changing moods of Nora. She is equally comfortable as the little songbird flitting about the stage and flirting with her husband (or Rank) as she is in her final emphatic exit; no matter what is going on, nothing ever feels forced. The change that comes over her when Torvald’s imperfections become clear is earned and, though her exit is certainly calculated for dramatic effect (she even changes her costume for it), it is clear that she is ready to play a new role.
At a time when several women are running for President and being taken quite seriously, it’s interesting—and probably sad—that this 120-year-old play still seems relevant. As impressive as Nora’s final “woke” stand is, her entire life until that moment is a reminder to women everywhere that too many men today still seek to control women, many for far more insidious reasons than Torvald has. The Krogstad/Christine subplot makes it clear that change is possible, but until men like Torvald wake up as well, all of our historical advances are tentative.
A Doll’s House is now playing at the Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct, Glencoe through Dec 15. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.