Theater Review: 'A Doll's House,' Northern Stage | Theater | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Theater Review: 'A Doll's House,' Northern Stage


Published September 27, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.

Olivia Gilliatt (background, Gordon Clapp) - COURTESY OF ROB STRONG
  • Courtesy Of Rob Strong
  • Olivia Gilliatt (background, Gordon Clapp)

The good news is that a husband saying his wife has to obey him now gets a laugh. The bad news is that Henrik Ibsen's groundbreaking play A Doll's House can't set off its shockwave unless the performers create an idyllic marriage to explode. In Northern Stage's production, director Eric Bunge has allowed the play's famous door-slam ending to seem inevitable, not hard-won. The flaw is nearly offset by Olivia Gilliatt's strong performance as Nora, the iconoclast who walks out that door.

The story takes place in Nora and Torvald Helmer's middle-class Norwegian living room. Outside, it's bitter cold; inside, it's the snug and charming backdrop for a happy marriage. Nora loves her children and her husband and is especially cheered by Torvald's new job and higher salary. It's a very pretty doll's house. Yes, Nora's husband infantilizes her; she is giddy, childish and inclined to flirt decorously with him. It's what female happiness looks like in 1879.

Ibsen's story grinds Nora against two oppressive forces. She slowly realizes that she hasn't been allowed to grow up. Her father and her husband both show her the same type of love: a paternalism reserved for a child. And she makes a mistake that gives another man power over her. Nora forged her father's signature to borrow money, but she believes it can't be much of a crime since the motive was paying for a medical cure for her husband. When the moneylender blackmails her, she hopes to conceal her crime from Torvald, then prepares herself for the worst. Or, she briefly dreams, the best.

The production takes three approaches to orienting the audience. The magnificent costumes by Hunter Kaczorowski are scrupulous renditions of Victorian attire. These suggest we'll be immersed in the manners and beliefs of another age, faithfully re-created to transport us there.

But it's not that simple. The set portrays a period living room, down to the stove and gramophone, but adds powerful stylized touches. A metallic film over the walls makes them both shiny and hostile, pretty and inhuman. And a bold red frame boxes the set into a veritable doll's house. Scenic designer Alexander Woodward and lighting designer Tyler M. Perry add powerful theatricality, calling attention to artifice while amplifying emotion.

Finally, the director's interpretation doesn't show a marriage breaking but one made ridiculous to modern audiences. And sometimes the focus is on sheer staginess. Bunge keeps the actors in constant motion, aligning and realigning them as if to remind us we're watching a play on a three-quarter-round set. The scenes have a stiff, forced rhythm. Perhaps it's a critique of Victorian-era propriety, but it works against our investment in the characters as real people.

The performances straddle the play's era and our own because Bunge lets us see Nora as a fool to tolerate Torvald from the outset. She doesn't have a transformation; she is married to an insufferable prig and has nothing to lose by leaving him. Gilliatt and Jeffries Thaiss, who plays Torvald, are so different in tone that they are virtually in two different plays. Gilliatt's pretty smiles are met with Thaiss' creepy, lip-smacking version of affection. Whether it's Bunge's choice or Thaiss' execution, this Torvald has no hold — moral, practical or sexual — on Nora.

From his first appearance, Thaiss makes playful eroticism look embarrassingly lascivious, and the two performers don't demonstrate a convincing attraction. Without an overtone of power and subservience in their male-female dynamic, the actors can't fully represent Ibsen's characters. This production seems afraid to show any form of masculine strength, satirizing a buffoon version of it instead of exploring it.

The audience has little choice but to rely on contemporary cultural norms and laugh at the more oafish expressions of male superiority. In Thursday's preview, these laughs were almost apologetic, stifled as soon as they broke out, but they're the inevitable consequence of portraying Torvald as an oily fool and expressing family friend Dr. Rank's infatuation with Nora as an ugly leer.

Robert Kropf's modernization of Ibsen's play eliminates the stilted dialogue of typical translations but also deposits Nora's children offstage, making it harder to see what's at stake for her. This streamlined version has a two-hour running time but loses some depth of character.

Gilliatt is the reason to see this show. She captures Nora's effervescence with a trilling laugh and light-footed restlessness. And she carves out a perfect line of coquetry, steering clear of craven or lustful extremes to deliver an essential willingness to please. It's only in the final scene, when Nora leaves with more confidence than fear, that Gilliatt herself drowns in this production's muddled modernity.

Hannah Chodos plays Nora's childhood friend Kristine with world-weariness, in sharp contrast to Nora's effusiveness. After an unhappy marriage, Kristine is a widow who must support herself. Chodos makes this cautionary tale a quiet sorrow, radiating resigned dignity.

As Krogstad, the blackmailer, Matthew Cohn initially approaches mustache-twirling villainy but then masterfully pulls inward to reveal his character's complex core. Ibsen supplies the rationale for his choices, but Cohn animates them with acute clarity.

Gordon Clapp supplies warmth as Dr. Rank. He connects affably with Nora and Torvald and cuts through the haze of formality that bogs down other scenes.

In this production, Nora leaves her family because she's found herself; Ibsen left her taking the risk of trying to. It's the difference between a journey's end and its beginning. Perry lights the doorway as if Nora were bound for interstellar travel, and Bunge and Gilliatt hold the moment to self-congratulatory length. This staging is exhilarating if you want to tell today's version of female self-actualization, but it doesn't touch on the fear and daring that Ibsen's door slam required.