If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

Bergman’s Contemporary “Nora” at Westport Playhouse

“Nora”, Ingmar Bergman’s contemporary, stripped-down version of Henrik Ibsen’s classic “A Doll’s House”, is probably one of the most unusual summer productions ever offered by the Westport Country Playhouse. Among the romantic comedies, outdoor Shakespeare and frothy musicals, a production of “Nora” can seem almost revolutionary this time of year. For that alone, let’s applaud the Playhouse and Artistic Director Mark Lamos.

Knowing legendary filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s obsession with marital relationships, it seems fitting that he would be drawn to the works of fellow Scandinavian Ibsen, whose plays deal with a variety of domestic themes. “A Doll’s House”, in essence, is about the marriage and female empowerment of Nora Helmer, who sacrifices everything for her chauvinistic husband, Torvald, only to be patronized and belittled by him in the end. With her final shocking exit from the marriage and her children, the play caused controversy at its time (1879) and can still deliver a potent message today.

At the Playhouse, director David Kennedy has set “Nora” in an open space with a period that suggests the early 1960s. This is a Nora who could be quite comfortable at the secretary’s desk outside Don Draper’s office on “Mad Men” (if her husband allowed her to work). Although contemporary settings can often inform and shed light on period plays, the concept for “Nora” almost immediately works against the Westport production. Although not the disaster that was Long Wharf’s modern-dress “Doll’s House” in 2010, this new version with a reduction of characters and no intermission still hurries the plot along until we realize that the stakes aren’t very high for Nora. We haven’t been given a full picture of her life with Torvald and the contemporary setting makes ludicrous some of the concerns and attitudes of the period.

Playing Nora, however, the terrific Liv Rooth gives her all as we’d expect from the actress who was so memorable in the Playhouse’s “Loot” last season and as the spunky dominatrix in Hartford TheaterWorks’ “Venus in Fur”. She is a compelling presence throughout but seems otherwise trapped by concept here and undermined by some weaker acting from her co-stars. This does not include Stephanie Janssen, who is very good as her sympathetic friend, Christine. The men, however, are uniformly disappointing beginning with Lucas Hall’s thin-voiced, one-note Torvald and Leroy McClain’s fey and distracting friend of the couple, Dr. Rank. Shawn Fagan fares slightly better as Nora’s would-be blackmailer but his actions never seem to take on the gravity necessary to make you really concerned for her.

Kristen Robinson’ striking scenic design is dramatically lit by Matthew Richards, while Katherine Roth’s costuming is all it should be. But Fitz Patton’s rather portentous sound design and original musical suggests more dread than actually ever occurs. A final, bold scene of male nudity is potentially quite powerful, but doesn’t deliver as much as it should were it in a better-realized production. “Nora” is indeed a curiosity. I wasn’t bored, but that is not high praise.

“Nora” continues at the Westport Country Playhouse through Saturday, August 2. For further information or ticket reservations, call the theatre box office at 203.227.4177 or visit: www.westportplayhouse.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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