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A CurtainUp Review
A Doll's House
By Judd Hollander & Sue Feinberg
From the moment she steps onto the stage of the Belasco Theater, Janet McTeer delivers a riveting performance as as Nora Helmer, the heroine of Henrik Ibsen's The Doll's House currently playing at the Belasco Theatre
Set in a small Norwegian town during Christmas 1879, (and inspired by actual events), the play tells the story of a young wife (McTeer) and mother who's still pretty much a child herself. This time out, however, the 118- year-old work has been given a 1990's feel. McTeer's Nora is a whirling dervish, full of life and laughter, a woman who would be more at home on the stage of an English Music Hall than with her husband Torvald (Owen Teale) and three children. (Her idea of a perfect life is having "pots and pots and pots of money").
McTeer's portrayal is probably the most sexual Nora ever on stage. When Nora says "everything on me looks good" she knows how attractive and desirable she is. Her husband Torvald is no slouch in the looks department either and there is a noticeable sexual attraction between the two.
After years of struggle, the couple has finally achieved a measure of financial security, thanks to Torvald's new job as a bank manager. But then a ghost from Nora's past appears in the form of Nils Krogstad (Peter Gowen). Several years earlier, Nora secretly borrowed money for a trip to a warmer climate to allow her desperately ill-husband to recover. In order to guarantee the loan, she forged a signature on a contract. Krogstad wants his money back and Nora, not able to give it, is terrified that Torvald will learn the truth.
As events unfold, Nora slowly comes to realize that the "perfect" life she has led is nothing but a fairy tale. Her life has been that of a doll to be pampered and protected, first by her father and then by her husband. But even as she's forced to face reality, she tries to do the right thing, only to realize that what she loves the most is the biggest lie of all.
Ibsen's work caused quite a shock when it first premiered in 1879 and was heralded as one of the first modern, post-Shakespeare "women's plays." McTeer takes the role of Ibsen's doll wife and brilliantly makes it her own. Her Nora runs the gamut of emotions from fear to rage to loathing to desperation. Even her demeanor and manner alter and she seems to age before our eyes, gaining not experience or wisdom, but the understanding that these are the qualities she must find. Just before the show ends, there's a scene where she mocks her former "sing-song" persona. That Nora is light-years removed from the one we first met only three hours or, according to the play's time frame, 3 days before.
While McTeer is the play's linchpin she does not have the toughest role in the piece. That honor goes to Owen Teale. His Torvald at first glance seems the stereotypical 19th century husband, a man with a keen sense of propriety who knows that a man is ruler of his home. He unquestionably loves Nora, and Teale lets us see and feel the passion beneath the propriety of the character--as well as a mean streak that makes him dangerous if crossed. At one point in the production, Torvald grabs his wife roughly when she's teased him once too often. There's cold anger in his voice and genuine fear in her eyes. It makes you wonder if Torvald might ever have gone further than what we see.
Many of Teale's lines would not have raised an eyebrow in 1879 Norway, drew roars of contemptuous laughter from the 1997 audience. Yet when his whole world come crashing down and he's forced, (after much prodding), to confront the lie his life has become, he makes a subtle, almost unnoticed, transformation. Slowly he begins to understand his wife's pain and the role he has played in letting it continue. When he says to Nora "I have the strength in me to become another man," we're seeing a soul laid bare in a way that's totally convincing.
Supporting actors Peter Gown as Krogstad and Jan Maxwell as Kristine Linde, an old friend of Nora's, provide an interesting contrast to the Helmers. Both are people who have been nearly destroyed by life. Yet they are able to create a second chance at happiness for themselves. They also offer a glimpse of what Nora and Torvald might some day become. The rest of the cast was fine, making the various roles believable.
Deirdre Clancy's set and costumes perfectly imbue the piece with a sense of place although, with the dialogue of choice British, the play could as easily have taken place in a small English village. Peter Mumford's lighting evokes the proper moods. Director Anthony Page keeps the pace moving during the more active scenes, and he and the actors managed to hold the audience's interest even during the slow sections which consist of lengthy, two-person conversations with very little action (though they do provide vital plot information).
The script, taken from a literal translation of the work, could probably have been cut by a half-hour. However, the cast and producers seemed more interested in presenting a definitive version of the Ibsen work, rather than adapting it to suit a 90's audience. And in this, they have succeeded admirably. Despite its wordiness, the play gradually draws you into its emotional web and delivers a knockout punch of a payoff.
Quibbles about slow-pacing aside, A Doll's House is an intense and compelling journey through the human spirit and well worth the trip.
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