One could accuse the renown Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman of taking a sledgehammer to Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” in his widely-produced adaptation, “Nora,” which is currently on view at the Westport Country Playhouse through August 2nd, and even accuse him of using that same sledgehammer to get his point across to his audience.
Thanks to director David Kennedy, those swings of the sledgehammer are so carefully modulated so that the end result cuts to the core of the stresses and tensions at the heart of “A Doll’s House” and allows “Nora” to illuminate in a clear and crisp manner the situation into which Ibsen’s heroine finds herself trapped.
Bergman has reduced the Ibsen original from three acts down to a speedy intermissionless hour and fifty minutes. He has eliminated some peripheral characters, such as Nora and her husband Torvald’s children as well as the family servants with whom Nora occasionally commiserates, as well as compacted the action into approximately 15 short scenes that convey the bare-bone necessities of the plot. The result is an immediacy rarely felt in productions of “A Doll’s House,” as Nora’s history of well-meaning lies and subsequent victimization by a ruthless blackmailer lead to a rapidly escalating, seemingly inescapable situation that sets Nora continually against the traditional mores of her times.
But what times? Bergman’s adaptation, translated smoothly and succinctly into English by Frederick J. Marker and Lise-Lone Marker, retains Ibsen’s Scandanavian cadences and references, but Kennedy’s staging is essentially timeless. Our first introduction to Nora, in a stunning, emotionally-detailed performance by Liv Rooth, finds her resembling a typical 1950’s American housewife, dutifully awaiting her husband’s arrival from work, reconnecting with an old friend, Mrs. Linde, who’s now looking for work, and enjoying, probably out of boredom and the need for intellectual company, the flirtatious attention of Dr. Rank, her husband’s best friend.
Rooth subtly hints at Nora’s underlying frustration, as Rooth conveys an inner discomfort with Nora’s deliberate playfulness with Dr. Rank, as well as her growing exasperation with having to ask her husband’s permission for nearly everything she wants to do, including managing the household’s money, as well as Torvald’s view of her as a mere extension of himself. As Nora ever so valiantly tries to take charge of the worsening situation she finds herself in, she is thwarted at nearly every turn by Torvald’s belief in his male superiority and his wife’s subordination. Rooth makes it very clear that Nora could manage her way out of her dilemma, if only Torvald could see beyond himself. But his adherence to his own self-importance and views of the role and function of the wife only complicates matters for Nora even further.
With a modern audience much more attuned and accepting of Nora’s dilemma, Bergman does not have to waste time outlining the mores that corset Nora. Instead, he concentrates on several big ideas, including Torvald’s and to an extent Dr. Rank’s innate sexism, which quite naturally raises appropriate sniggers in the audience. As a result, however, the audience more clearly recognizes the need for Nora to leave what is essentially a genuinely loveless marriage and in fact is set to help her pack. Bergman also provides some hopeful opportunities for Nora in her new life, options that actually stun a starkly naked Torvald who in Bergman’s and Kennedy’s vision, is the person left literally with nothing at the end.
Set designer Kristen Robinson has fashioned a remarkable concept that stuns as the curtain rises. The five walls of the Torvald household, with only a single window on one of the sides, soars up into the fly space of the Playhouse, but stops at about six or seven feet above the stage, where the sparsely, but attractively furnished main room, outfitted symbolically with an obviously artificial Christmas tree, is located. Characters are able to enter and exit through the black space behind the set, where there is also located, significantly, a locked mail box that plays a crucial role in the proceedings and which is later moved to the edge of the set. The stage curtain, on view before the show and between scenes, is a stark black, with a single lighted window at stage right, suggestive of the long, dark Scandanavian winters as well as the little bit of light that Nora will allow to enter the sexist, male dominated world she will find herself pitted against.
Rooth’s remarkable performance not only anchors but guides and swerves the play as well. Initially she seems willing to play the game that society expects of her, but as the complications mount, Rooth very ably communicates the deep well of emotions that arise in Nora. Even seeing how readily and easily her friend Mrs. Linde finds a job, thanks to Torvald, both piques Nora’s interest as well as makes apparent to her that hat her husband could never consider the idea of his wife working outside of the home.
Lucas Hall strives to make Torvald more than a one-note character and he succeeds for the most part by demonstrating how much his character is also blinded by the traditions and mores of society. Hall’s Torvald is essentially a good man who cannot even begin to conceive that his wife would want something more out of life than he is able to provide. It is clearly not the way he was brought up. His self-concern when Nora’s potentially criminal actions will possibly scar their societal reputations represents the pattern of the time, though as modern audiences we are more readily unforgiving than perhaps Ibsen’s original viewers were. But the pain and threat of violence that he conveys to his wife are palpably real and visceral, and we recognize that the clear-thinking Nora, who in reality has been the one to have saved her husband’s life and sanity years ago by taking him on a much-needed restorative vacation (and which also involved a cruel betrayal by her father who refused to finance the trip because he believed that it was the husband’s duty to provide for the wife and not the other way around), has only one choice available to her. Our 20/20 hindsight enables us to see that it is not ultimately the entirely hopeless choice that Ibsen’s critics once believed.
Shawn Fagan also does a fine job as he disreputable Krogstad, the disreputable money lender who threatens to reveal that years ago Nora forges her father’s name to the loan document in order to finance that life-saving trip. His actions arise after Nora asks her husband to find a job for Stephanie Janssen’s competent and supportive Mrs. Linde, which leads to Torvald’s dismissal of Krogstad. LeRoy McClain is an amiable and cheery Dr. Rank, who early on announces his bankruptcy which closes another of Nora’s avenues in trying to resolve the situation. McClain plays his bromance with Torvald quite believably, and gently underscores the deep feelings that he occasionally betrays to Nora.
Lorin Lattaro has provided some lovely moves as Nora prepares her “Tarantella” for an upcoming gala, for which her husband has, naturally, provided her a costume. Katherine Roth’s costumes hint at both a Scandanavian as well as a universal influence, in accord with what I suspect are Bergman’s and Kennedy’s intentions. Matthew Richard’s lighting design helps to convey the night and day, while allowing the merest illumination to light certain characters as they approach the set from the darker outer regions of the set.
Kennedy consistently drives the play forward, allowing us to feel the growing anxiety caused by the tightening grip of circumstance and societal traditions that increasingly threaten to strangle Nora. In Liv Rooth, he has discovered a Nora for the ages, one who can begin as the willingly protected doll wife and grow into a woman who realizes that the cards have been stacked against her for her entire life, and who decides after a long night of the soul to pursue what she sees as the better alternative. This Nora is ultimately not escaping a situation, but taking the first steps on a more positive and uplifting journey. Through Bergman’s adaptation, we can see how “A Doll’s House” represented a game changer in the battle of the sexes and better understand how it shattered much more than simple toys.