What becomes a legend most? Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House certainly is that. Its portrayal of a docile wife turned rebellious was scandalous when it opened in 1879, and remained so for many years. In 2006, the centennial of Ibsen’s birth, it was the most-performed play in the world. How has it aged?
Stray Dog Theatre brings it to us again, in an adaptation by Frank McGuinness, giving us Nicole Angeli as Nora and Ben Ritchie as Torwald, her husband. When we first see her, she’s carrying lots of parcels, Christmas presents for the next day. She’s thrilled that Torvald is giving up his law practice to become a bank manager, which means a substantial increase in income. According to Torvald, Nora really likes to spend money, chiding her affectionately using lots of pet names involving birds or small animals. She even asks for cash for her Christmas present, but he declines.
It all looks cozy until her childhood friend Kristine (Rachel Hanks) arrives – they haven’t seen each other in years, so there’s a lot of catching up to do. Kristine married for money to support her sick mother and two younger brothers. Now she’s a widow, left kroner-less, and is hoping Nora’s husband will give her a job. It’s been a struggle, she admits. Nora, in her comfortable domesticity, feels challenged by this and reveals that she hasn’t had it so easy, either – she had to borrow money and hide the borrowing from her husband. Pretty shocking in that day and time, especially since she had to have a male relative co-sign for her.
Enter Nils Krogstad (Stephen Peirick), who’s overcome his shady past to have a job at the bank Torvald is about to run and where Kristine wants to work. Yes, Torvald will hire Kristine. In fact, there’s about to be an opening. Why? Krogstad is getting the boot. He’s Kristine’s old flame – but why is Nora so agitated in his presence? She’s much calmer around Torvald’s old friend, Dr. Rank (John N. Reidy).
Pentagons are so much more interesting than triangles, don’t you think?
To the modern eye, both the main characters are deeply flawed, although Ritchie’s Torvald is warmer and more affectionate than many portrayals, at least when he’s regarding his wife as an ornament of his household. But he’s still a man of steely moral values, seeing nothing but black or white in the human character, intolerant of any discoloration. Nora is what my mother would have termed a silly woman, superficial, worried about appearance, possessions, and little beyond the walls of their home. Her insistence that the money was borrowed to save Torvald’s life is so dramatic and frequent that one gets the impression he wasn’t all that sick. Perhaps she just wanted a long holiday in Italy on the pretext of his recovering from overwork?
The play has begun to sound strange to the modern ear. Torvald pontificates in a monologue with lines like “When a man forgives his wife, he loves her all the more, because it reminds him she’s totally dependent on him.” That monologue caused giggles in the audience – not the fault of the actors nor the director, but because that sort of thing is becoming unthinkable in all but the most dysfunctional of situations.
That said, Richie does a find job with Torvald, warming and freezing rapidly to his wife’s situations. Angeli gives us a good performance of a superficial woman, but it’s difficult when Nora relatively suddenly decides to stand up for herself and explain why she’s had enough. It seems impulsive rather than well thought out, fllimsier than the move of a woman who sees the possibility of a new life that comes at a high cost. Rachel Hanks does a good job as Kristine, subtle as she’s pulled in several directions by her situation. Peirick is perhaps the most Nordic in his restraint, and John N. Reidy’s physician carries a surprising amount of weight on his shoulders with dignity and charm.
The elegant, slightly spare set from Robert J. Lippert reminds us of the aviary names Torvald uses, and Eileen Engel’s costumes for the women in the play are almost lush, the men drabber, indeed, dour. Gary Bell’s directions keeps things moving well, and despite the three-act length, things don’t drag.
The play can be viewed a number of ways, but it’s well-executed; the rest is up to you, the audience.
A Doll’s House
through February 18
Stray Dog Theatre
Tower Grove Abbey