Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) was one of the most influential playwrights of his day. His concern was with the contemporary ethical problems underlying his society—that of a bourgoisie bloated with complacency, corrupted by its sense of moral superiority, wallowing in self-righteousness. By emphasizing the social significance of these problems and the human tragedies that result, he achieved a universality that elevated him from Norwegian dramatist of limited scope to one of international appeal.
In A Doll's House (1879), Nora Helmer (Virginia Kull) is the epitome of the bourgeoise wife: pretty, happily empty-headed, devoted to her children, worshipful of her husband, Torvald (Willie Repoley). She is content to devote herself to him; to take his opinions, his tastes as her own. In effect, she has sacrificed her identity to him. He, in turn, regards her as his “squirrel,” his “singing bird,” a little doll who cannot to be taken seriously, because, of course, she’s not supposed to be serious. That would mean she has a mind and a personality of her own, and that goes against the “rules” of their society. So she lives safely coccooned from the world, until forces she unwittingly sets in motion destroy that world and she comes face to face with the reality of her life.
The current production of A Doll's House at NC Stage—and another outstanding production it is— uses a new translation of the play by Irish dramatist Frank McGuinness. Mr. McGuinness wisely did not try to update the play but merely streamlined it. It was performed on Broadway in 1997 and won a richly deserved Tony Award for best revival. The plot, seemingly simple, becomes increasingly complex, as layers of deceit are revealed. Years earlier, Nora’s husband, Torvald, was in need of help. Unbeknownst to him, she contracted a debt to meet this need. She brags to her friend Kristine Linde (Kathryn Langwell) that her husband knows nothing about the debt and she secretly has taken in work to pay it off. She is proud that she of this accomplishment and speaks of how much pleasure it gave her to work “just like a man.”
As Nora, Virginia Kull gives a bravura performance in a demanding role. It is Nora who carries the play, its success—or failure—rests on her shoulders. In the hands of a less skilled actress, the emotional impact of the play would be lost, but Ms Kull is fully up to the challenge. She is properly childlike at the beginning, prone to telling her husband little white lies, fully believing in Torvald’s ability (indeed, his willingness) to keep her safe. But this belief is challenged when Nils Krogstad, the man she borrowed the money from, shows up and threatens to destroy her unless she prevents Torvald from firing him. For the first time in her life she must deal with a serious problem on her own. At first, she believes she can keep her life the way it is by keeping Krogstad at bay and lying to Torvald to keep him from finding out her secret. As she struggles to keep Krogstad at bay and Torvald ignorant of her dilemma the facade she presents to the world begins to crumble. By the end of the play, we have seen Ms Kull’s Nora transition into an adult woman who fully understands the price of that adulthood and is willing to pay it.
As Torvald, Michael Zlabinger takes an essentially unlikable character—condescending, patronizing, autocratic, petty, and selfish—and humanizes him by emphasizing the love he has for his wife. And when he sees he is losing her, his impassioned plea reveals his deep-seated need of her. As his body language shows, if she leaves him, she will leave behind a broken man, and we realize that he has been as much a victim of their society as she.
In the role of Nils Krogstad, the man from whom Nora borrowed the money, Willie Repoley takes the menacing nature of the character and balances it against the the man’s desperation to keep his life from being destroyed by Torvald. And if that means destroying Nora’s well-being, so be it. As with Mr. Zlabinger, Mr. Repoley, by emphasizing the human element in the character’s predicament, prevents him from being a monster.
Ably supporting are Kathryn Langwell as Nora’s impoverished but undaunted friend, Kristine, and the redoubtable Ralph Redpath as Dr. Rank, a man with a secret or two of his own. While these characters are designed to illuminate Nora and Torvald, Ms Langwell and Mr. Redpath bring to their roles a world-weariness that tells us all we need to know about the lives they have lived.
In minor roles: Sarah Bellino plays the maid, Helene; Kay Galvin appears as Anne-Marie, the nanny; and the Helmer children are played, alternatively, by Joy Siler/Tony Bird and by Lexie Moore/Porter Dowd. In the above performance, I saw six-year-old Ms Siler, who was charming as Emmy; and first-grader Mr. Bird, who was appropriately rambunctious as Ivan.
Kudos galore go to director Angie Flynn-McIver. Her artistic vision is impeccable, her control of the play, seamless. She forgoes the obvious (to us) and unwitting feminist element in the work that so many modern productions have emphasized to concentrate on its humanity. In so doing, she re-establishes the human conflict central to the plot, returning the play to Ibsen’s intention and allowing the tragedy of the relationship between Nora and Torvald to dominate the stage. Enhancing the production values are the costumes by Allison M. Steadman, which further serve to define the characters; the excellent set by Michelle Carello; and the lighting design by Jeff Meyer.