Twelve Angry Jurors
By Geary Danihy
I’ve seen many stagings of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” but Long Wharf Theatre’s production of the Norwegian playwright’s groundbreaking 1879 drama is the first I’ve seen to have Nora’s final-act declaration of independence evoke laughter. Actually, the audience laughed quite a few times throughout the evening, though it’s debatable whether this is what director Gordon Edelstein, who also adapted the play, had in mind. However, what can you expect when Torvald and Nora Helmer evoke memories of Rob and Laurie Petrie of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” fame.
There are three basic problems with this production. The first is that Edelstein’s adaptation plants dominating, condescending Torvald and submissive, placating Nora securely in modern suburbia where, without a lot of thoughtful, insightful massaging of the script, they don’t belong.
It’s true that many women today are still condemned to live in doll houses, or rather doll McMansions, but the terms of imprisonment have changed: the chains are made of different metals; the bars have a different cut and hue. There are a lot of possibilities here, but Edelstein doesn’t take advantage of them.
Second problem: you can’t drag a 19th-century play into a 21st-century environment and still expect Victorian mores to hold sway or have any great meaning, especially when we are talking about financial peccadilloes. Compared to the high crimes of Michael Milken, Bernie Madoff and Dennis Kozlowski, Nora’s forging of a signature on a document is a whimpering misdemeanor. Nora’s “sin” is period defined, and the period of this production is schizophrenic: in 19th-century Norway, Nora has a major problem; in 21st-century “wherever,” she just calls her lawyer. Unfortunately, we are asked to be in both periods at the same time, which essentially means we are nowhere.
The third problem is Ana Reeder’s take on Nora. As written, Nora is the classic “bird in a gilded cage,” petted and patronized by a husband who expects nothing more of her than she be his “little squirrel.” However, there is gravitas to the woman, a nascent sense of self-worth and an inherent dignity. Unfortunately, all of this has been lost in Reeder’s portrayal, for this Nora is as flighty as a kitten and as flirtatious as a hormone-hyped teenager. Reeder’s Nora is a somewhat ditzy 60s sitcom Mom who has done something naughty and is trying to figure out how to hide it from hubby – how many times did we see Laura Petrie in the same predicament?
This odd characterization is made more apparent by Adam Trese’s Torvald and Tim Hopper’s Dr. Rank, for these two, though garbed in modern clothing, are completely ensconced in the 19th century. Their language, their perspectives, their concerns are those of men long vanished from the earth. They are walking, talking anachronisms.
So too is Linda Powell’s Christine, a friend of Laura’s…Oops!…Nora’s, who has been through a bad marriage and is attempting to find herself in a world dominated by men. It’s not that her situation is unheard of today, it’s just that it’s couched in terms that are no longer relevant. Again, Edelstein had some opportunities here, but the adaptation is all surface change; there’s no 21st-century substance.
Odd calls abound in this production, including Michael Yeargan’s set, which is basically an arrowhead thrust into the center of the theater house. Two thirds of the set (stage right to center) consists of a holiday-decorated living room with a dining room behind it, a configuration that apparently presented some blocking problems, for in several scenes the actors are arranged at odd angles, with dominant positions held by subordinate characters, and in other scenes actors deliver extended dialogue with their backs to the audience.
The left third of the stage is basically the outside of the Torvald’s house, with two large windows giving us a peek into Torvald’s home office where, when he is not involved in a scene, he can often be seen diligently working at his desk, perhaps parsing the banking industry’s latest derivative. I guess there’s some symbolic fish to be fried here, but does it warrant giving up one-third of the stage to what is, in essence, dead space?
The man who holds Nora’s fate in his hands is Nils Krogstad, played by Mark Nelson. Nelson enters with a Barney Fife quaver in his voice and never lets it go. There’s no moral consequence to his actions, no moral weight to his problems. Yes, he is a man with a family who is about to lose his job. Yes, he is a man who has had a prior relationship with Christine … and yet. Nelson plays Krogstad as a fish who’s already been landed and is just flipping and flopping on the dock. I guess we should care, but Nelson’s Krogstad enters weak and exits bewitched – the fish has been filleted.
Try as I might, I just couldn’t care about Nora, Torvald, Dr. Rank (although I did like his Clint Eastwood party outfit), and Christine. I couldn’t care about them because this production doesn’t provide the framework to compel me to care.
There’s a significant message lurking in Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” for us 21st-century folks. Unfortunately, in Long Wharf’s half-pregnant adaptation, that message is lost. Neither fish nor fowl, Long Wharf’s “A Doll’s House” suffers from Edelstein’s waffling – he adapted the play (slightly), but didn’t update it, really didn’t thrust Nora and Torvald into our driven, morally reductive, ethically solipsistic society.
Perhaps Edelstein should have turned to someone else to do the adaptation and then plied his significant directorial talents to challenge and enhance the adaptive conception. Wearing both hats, he appears to have talked himself into an artistic corner.
“A Doll’s House” runs through Sunday, May 23. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282, or go to www.LongWharf.org.
This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Citizen-News.