"Nora" has such a problem.
Not just that nasty business with the borrowed money, and that faked signature, nor even the entropy of her marriage to Torvald Helmer. Nora's problem is to be a woman whose "issues" (in the current jargon) seem immediate and desperate and unique enough to engage us now, over a century after Ibsen's drama revolutionized the stage by making the quality of a woman's life a matter of her own choices.
This adaptation by Ingmar Bergman of "A Doll's House" is a tight, playable, smartly coherent script. This production, however, directed by Bartlett Sher, takes the radical strength of Nora's rebellion, her crisis of marriage, social convention and personal constraint, and renders it tepid, unfocused and inconsistent. In spite of an excellent company of actors, led by the gifted Kristin Flanders, the result is curiously inert, lacking precisely those varieties of conflict, both internal and external, that are the play's raisson d'etre.
As the play begins we see Nora in a warm, festively decorated holiday home, and her husband Torvald (Stephen Barker Turner) showing himself to be a decidedly decent man, to be sure chauvinistic and stilted, but still free enough to take great pleasure in Nora's often almost childish ways. He adores his little songbird, and makes a real effort to keep her in a suitably gilded cage.
Kristen Flanders is endearing, vivacious and bright. In the first act her Nora is all winsome delight, and even her indiscretion (signing her father's name to a debt she takes in order to treat Torvald's illness), is the sort of quaint flaw that only makes her seem more admirable. She dances through a charmed life, and Torvald gratefully partners her. There is no great depth between Torvald and Nora, nor is any expected in a good, conventional marriage, but there is decorum and high regard.
Torvald is a man of uncompromising principal, and Nora challenges that with her debt to Krogstad, a publicly disgraced bank employee (played with dark complexity by John Proccacino). Even though she has been slowly and secretly repaying it through minor economies and personal sacrifice, Krogstad, whose job is jeopardized by Torvald's appointment as bank manager, threatens to reveal her indiscretion, and that could undo everything in Nora's life. Her friendship with the much less secure Mrs. Linde (intriguingly played by Mari Nelson) felt like it should have had greater impact on Nora, that there should have been more recognition of their similarities, their mutual flaws. Nora's character is more attractively displayed in the adoration that Dr. Rank feels toward her. His hereditary syphilis dooms him to loving her from afar, but Laurence Ballard brings such dignity and conviction to the role that his passion is unquestionable. His delivery of the famous line "and thank you for the light" was beautiful and resonant. I wish more of the play had been.
By the end of the first act I simply couldn't find anything in Nora's married or social life of sufficient scale to justify the fearsome act of personal assertion that ends the play. The first act was filled with fun and comfort and reasonable satisfaction. At one point Nora and Torvald even end up rolling around together on the polished floors. I felt her financial judgement was a much more significant question than her marital dissatisfaction, her friendships had greater power than her solitude, her domestic security was greater than the threat posed by Krogstad.
Even the visually beautiful set by Matthew Smucker seemed at cross purposes. The wall of tall windows and the perfectly dressed set created a sense of cultivated comfort in the first act, and towering emptiness in the second. But at no time did I feel, either visually or dramatically, a sense of intolerable claustrophobia, of soul-wrenching constraint. As a result, for me, the second act (and her final act) seemed insufficiently motivated. There were careless remarks from Torvald as the result of too much drink, some presumptuous lust, and the next thing we see is Nora packed and ready to leave, dressed in mourning, and about to undo everything she's achieved in her life. The acting was intense and technically excellent, but how did we get here, and why?
Ibsen presents a great problem for contemporary audiences, not because he's distant, but because so much of his impact is simply taken for granted in the drama of our own century. Still, Nora is one of the great characters in theatre, if for no other reason than because she leaves us to figure out for ourselves so much of her inner life. Still, it seems to me that we should arrive at the end of this play with a full understanding that nothing in her life, nothing in women's lives, nothing in the life of society will ever be quite the same. For me, this door slams not with a bang, but a whimper.
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