The story of a woman chafing at her traditional roles as wife and mother—and ultimately breaking free from them—may feel old-hat to those living in a post-1970s world, but when Norwegian playwright Henrick Ibsen wrote A Doll’s House in a different set of ‘70s—the 1870s—the situation was quite different. The play was considered shocking, and Nora Helmer a protagonist audiences couldn’t understand.
The audience for the Harbor Stage Company’s new production of Doll’s House may understand Nora, but that’s as much a result of founding member Stacy Fischer’s portrayal as it is of Ibsen’s writing. Nora’s initial self-absorption—irritating in other productions—feels naïve and harmless here, and her inability to see her secret as anything but blameless is believable. Her breathless wonder at her current good fortune lies oddly atop her apparent disinterest in other aspects of her life, including her children (who never appear in this production), but Fischer pulls it off without any cognitive dissonance and in fact keeps the audience pulling for her throughout.
Founding member Robert Kropf’s adaptation is strong and unnerving, with only occasional lapses into verbal expressions at odds with their surroundings. He’s pared down the cast without paring down the drama, and the overall feeling of a claustrophobic world and claustrophobic lives within that world is powerful and sustained. Kropf’s own portrayal of Nils Krogstad teeters on the very edge of over-the-top smarminess without ever actually going there, and the audience easily accepts the sinister, even life-threatening dynamic the character embodies.
Founding member Jonathan Fielding’s Torvald is easy to dislike—weak, smug, self-assured and self-congratulating—and this heightens the impact of his rage when he finally explodes. Nora’s desperate fear of her husband in those moments is palpable and may serve as a trigger to some: it felt very real and very frightening. (Disclosure: I’ve worked for years with survivors of domestic abuse, and the scene between Nora and Torvald after he’s read Nils’ letter could not have been more realistic. Kropf’s sensitive adaptation/direction brought this right into the reality of living-rooms well into the 21st century and in ways that previous productions have never done for me.) Despite his constant endearments toward his wife, this Torvald is every bit as self-absorbed as Nora … and without her charm.
As in every Harbor Stage production, founding member Brenda Withers is simply perfect. Her Kristine Linde is a multi-dimensional character, subtle and engaging. Previous productions have underscored Kristine’s role in Nora’s awakening; Withers shows us a character very much in charge of her own journey, with Nora a means to her own ends. She may have married to support her family’s needs, but it was her own decision and she is clear-headed about making more of them. If the play is a beginning lesson in feminism, Kristine is as much on its faculty as is, in the end, Nora.
Robin Bloodworth’s Dr. Jens Rank is a gentleman in every sense of the word. While the actor’s commanding physical presence is at odds with the character’s terminal disease, he’s completely engaging and believable as the dying man at last declaring his love for an unattainable—and virtually uncaring—woman. And his gentleness around Nora is exceptional. He projects pathos without ever becoming pathetic.
Some deft creative directing around barriers (the rooms are clearly separated and delimited until the end, when walls suddenly become fluid) and using costumes to underscore transformations complete this brilliant performance. Go see it.
The unexpected bonus? The production is shot through with surprising moments of humor far removed from Ibsen’s occasionally heavy-handed script—and yet completely at home in this season début by one of the most talented ensembles on the Cape.
A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
Adapted and directed by Robert Kropf
June 18-July 11, 2015
Harbor Stage Company, 15 Kendrick Avenue (Wellfleet Harbor), www.harborstage.org