“A Doll’s House,” Long Wharf Theatre

--Irene Backalenick

In this current Long Wharf production of “A Doll’s House,” director/adapter
Gordon Edelstein has chosen to set the Ibsen classic in our own era—a misguided
decision indeed! Characters wear jeans or slacks and speak with the casual slang
and occasional obscenities which pepper today’s verbal exchanges.
 
But why make this time change? Surely the story of a couple, with its Victorian
values, does not belong in today’s world. Torvald, the husband, rules his wife
Nora with an iron hand and cherishes her as a toy, a piece of property. (This is
hardly a typical 21st century pair, although there may be Torvalds and Noras who
linger on. If Edelstein had had to move “A Doll’s House” forward in time, he
might have set it in the ‘50s or‘60s, before the feminist movement exploded.)
 
The play has always worked well in a Victorian setting, thank you, without
introducing novelty. “A Doll’s House” was strong medicine in 1879, when it burst
upon the European scene. Ibsen’s carefully-wrought drama, with its strong social
message, created a stir. And to this day, with its insightful views of human
nature, it remains a gem.

As to the story, Nora is a scatterbrain who spends money foolishly, with little
regard for its sources. Early in their marriage, when her husband was seriously
ill, she borrowed money from a money-lender for his expensive treatment. She
forges signatures to get the money. When the play opens, the former
money-lender, now working for Nora’s banker husband, loses his job. Desperate,
he threatens her with disclosure if she does not use her wifely wiles to plead
his case. How this all plays out in a Victorian marriage is the gist of the
plot.
 
Edelstein’s production has both drawbacks and compensations. Michael Yeargan’s
stage set depicting Nora’s cozy living room, is a charmer. It gives off the
sense of a Victorian world surviving modern times, making the transition between
two worlds. Casting, alas, is more questionable. Ana Reeder, as Nora, is a
veritable Brunhilde, and it is hard to see her as a doll-like waif, bouncing
into her husband’s lap. “Little squirrel,” “little bluebird,” or “little minx,”
as he calls her, are indeed laughable labels. Yet Reeder has an endearing style,
at times vulnerable and believable as the put-upon Nora. And she offers a potent
dramatic moment, when reality finally dawns on her, and, gazing toward the
audience, her facial expression slowly changes.
 
Others in the cast prove to be less than the sum of their parts. Even the
excellent Mark Nelson, as the money-lender, falls short of his promise, never
reaching the level of his earlier performances in “Underneath the Lintel” and
“Picasso at the Lapin Agile.” Only Linda Powell, as Nora’s friend Christine,
comes through with a performance that is clean, true, and right on target.
 
All told, when all aspects of this “Doll’s House” are considered, the result
falls short of the mark.

This review also appears in the CT Post and on nytheaterscene.com.

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