ADVERTISING AT CURTAINUP
Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
By Charles Wright
That off-stage racket — the loud "reverberation of a heavy door closing" one floor below the apartment in which A Doll's House takes place — jolted the socially-complacent audiences of Ibsen's day and remains the most talked-about sound effect in the history of western drama.
There's no slamming door at the end of Nora, Ingmar Bergman's streamlined adaptation of A Doll's House, which is currently at the Cherry Lane Studio in a production sensitively directed by Austin Pendleton. Bergman's anti-realistic, cinematically fluid script liberates Ibsen's play from its sociological trappings, enhancing its accessibility to audiences unversed in the customs and mores of 19th century Europe.
Published in 1879 and first performed the following year, A Doll's House concerns Nora and Torvald Helmer (Jean Lichty and Todd Gearhart), whose diffidence and lack of candor with each other have left them intimate strangers, despite eight years of marriage. The Helmers' union is founded on the rigid assumption that husbands handle worldly matters, including family finance, without consulting their spouses, and wives confine themselves to bearing children and keeping house.
Ibsen introduces the Helmers at the moment when a dark secret about Nora is coming to light. Whether the secret is truly sinister is a matter of perspective; but its disclosure inevitably alters the couple's relationship.
The well-made dramas for which Ibsen is noted, A Doll's House among them, represent a decisive step away from the melodramatic conventions and artificiality of the 19th century stage. Yet Ibsen's best plays, spare and realistic for their day, are apt to seem long and overwrought to current sensibilities.
Bergman (1918-2007), director of highly stylized films such as The Seventh Seal and Scenes from a Marriage, has distilled Ibsen's text to a dramatically effective minimum, eliminating repetition and emotional excess. He has shortened the scenes and introduced transitions comparable to the cuts and fades of movie-making. And he has replaced Ibsen's proscenium realism with a dreamy lyricism that shifts the focus from what's on the surface to what's happening under the five characters' skin. The result feels up-to-date but, at least in the present production, there's a uniformity of tone throughout that becomes monotonous.
This isn't to suggest that Bergman dispenses with all the machinery of Ibsen's complicated plot. He needs the narrative details, despite their creakiness, to illuminate the characters' motivations and the sour dynamics in which the characters are ensnared.
Bergman's version races through the early parts of the story, concentrating on the tensions in the Helmers' marriage and the pain those tensions cause. In retrospect, one suspects that Bergman and director Pendleton have rushed through most of the play in order to emphasize the final confrontation between Nora and Torvald.
In Pendleton's production, that ultimate confrontation is set apart from what precedes it by a soundless interlude, which isn't in Bergman's text. In this interlude, Torvald, enveloped in shadows by Harry Feiner's lighting design, undresses slowly, laying aside methodically his banker's habiliments, and climbing naked into bed to await Nora and the obligatory scene that he doesn't know is coming.
The flash of nudity in this interlude is hardly surprising (nakedness being common, if not downright de rigueur, in Off-Broadway dramas at present). A director less subtle than Pendleton might have asked Gearhart to drop the bedspread in which he's wrapped during the intense duologue that follows. But even with the bedspread modestly in place, the directorial message is clear: Nora has stripped away the assumptions of patriarchy that have empowered Torvald; and the balance of influence between the spouses — she fully dressed in street clothes and he unclad — has shifted profoundly and with finality.
Pendleton has assembled an admirable cast. Lichty, an especially appealing presence, moves back and forth between toy-wife charm and the agitation of someone about to be found out. Her Nora, though naive, proves more complicated, and hence more interesting, than anticipated at the start. In the final moments of the play, she displays a self-possession, tentative but believable, that suggests she can learn to look after herself when she escapes Torvald's doll house.
Gearhart's interpretation of Torvald also becomes more intricate as the play progresses. Suitably stuffy at first, he rises to the challenges of the later scenes, making the character's perplexity sympathetic rather than pathetic.
Larry Bull sidesteps the villainy usually associated with Krogstad, the disgraced lawyer who's threatening to expose Nora's secret. Bull gives the character poignance and, in the end, a surprising sort of dignity. Andrea Cirie makes the most of the thankless role of Christine Linde, a visitor from out of town embroiled in the emotional chaos of the Helmer household.
Of special note is veteran character-actor George Morfogen as Dr. Rank, the Helmers' friend and daily visitor. Morfogen is a master of subtext and the unforced gesture. While Dr. Rank pretends his habitual flirting with Nora is a matter of jest, Morfogen embodies the thwarted ardor and heartbreak of an old man's unfulfilled infatuation. And his last exit, near the play's end, is a courtly leave-taking that spares his friends any sorrow (after all, the Helmers are wrestling with their own problems) but signals that the character's end is near. Brief as it is, Morfogen's performance is what most makes the production worth seeing.