Huntington's "A Doll House": Slam Dunk?

Andrea Syglowski & Sekou Laidlow in "A Doll's House"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)
A Doll's House, the cataclysmic work by Henrik Ibsen, generally recognized as the father of modern drama, is currently being presented by Huntington Theatre Company in a brand new Adaption by Bryony Lavery, in its first professional U. S. production. While many have proposed this as the first truly feminist play, it was described by Ibsen himself as not being so limited in scope, but more universal in intent, or as Director Melia Bensussen has put it: “we all struggle to be our genuine selves while meeting the needs of our society and our relationships” in the context of modern false morality. It remains the most produced Ibsen play throughout the theatrical world, as well as one of the most frequently mounted works, period. While some aspects of the play betray their age, the social struggles portrayed do not. With respect to this production, one's assessment will depend greatly on whether one is a purist or more open to a less traditional approach. Lavery has all of the cast speaking colloquially, and Bensussen has most of them delivering the lines at a fairly rapid pace, with natural overlapping dialogue. It makes for a radically different take, especially in its fluttering-bird depiction of Nora, that will fascinate some and distance others. Since the societal issues depicted by Ibsen no longer exist to the degree he portrays (in an era before marriage counseling and ritalin), this updated effort will have its champions and detractors, with few on the fence.

The story revolves around one simple, fateful, desperate act, involving both forgery and embezzlement, by Nora (Andrea Syglowski), in order to afford care for her husband, Torvald Helmer (Sekou Laidlow). Faced with public disclosure and a potentially ruined reputation, Nora submits to extortion by Torvald's colleague Krogstad (Nael Nacer). She seeks advice from Dr. Rank (Jeremy Webb), a friend to both Nora and Torvald, and discovers her childhood friend Christine Linde (Marinda Anderson) is also in financial difficulties and seeks a job with Torvald through Nora. The rest of the household includes Nanny Anne-Marie (Adrianne Krstansky), the Maid Helene (Lizzie Milanovich), and two Helmer children (alternating among Zoe Adams Martin, Kinsaed Damaine James, Elise Rose Walker, and Gavin Daniel Walker). Complications ensue when Torvald declares he is going to fire Krogstad, and Nora finds she has to present Torvald with the truth. His extremely negative reaction leads to her final act of independence.
The Set for Huntington Theatre Company's "A Doll's House"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson) 
Ibsen was a true prophet in his dissecting of the modern middle-class conception of marriage. Rolf Fjelde, in the forward to his famed 1965 English translation, quotes Ibsen when he succinctly described his role: “to be a poet is to see...but mark well, to see in such a way that what is seen is perceived by his audiences just as the poet saw it”. Fjelde goes on to state that this seeing is perceiving relationships in a social context, especially the extended self in the moral order of the cosmos, when Nora has her traumatic awakening and evolves into a remorseless and independent heroine. What has been seen as superficially photographic on the surface is actually a fusion of perspectives, with Ibsen as a critic of society and the varied intricacies of relationships. Ibsen's motivation was not to lecture, but to bring human beings into existence, daring each “to think, to feel, to question, to live”.

The play begins with Nora, but ends with Torvald, with his short-lived hope that she would reconsider her final act. Bensussen directs a stellar cast here, beginning and ending with the terrific Syglowski, with support from Laidlow, Nacer, Krstansky and the rest of the cast. The creative talents include unusual Scenic Design by James Noone, varied Costume Design by Michael Krass, Lighting Design by Dan Kotlowitz and Sound Design and Original Music by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen.

Just imagine the state of that thunderstruck premiere audience just before Christmas of 1879, unknowingly witnessing the birth of modern drama with the grand slam of that door. A few years ago a local production omitted that unsettling sound, rather like cutting the “Rosebud” scene out of Citizen Kane. That moment in this production is slightly altered (no spoiler here), enough to mute that most iconic ending of some of its potential power. Once again, if you're a more traditional theatergoer, this won't please. If you're more receptive to innovation, this is a total slam dunk.

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