‘Tis the Season for “A Doll’s House” at Dramaworks (Review)

‘Tis the Season for “A Doll’s House” at Dramaworks (Review)

‘Tis the season for A Doll’s House, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s classic portrait of nineteenth century marriage and gender roles that unfolds on Christmas Eve and Christmas day in 1879, also the year in which it was written and first staged. The title’s significance, broached by Nora herself in the third and final act, refers to the identical ways her father and husband perceived and treated her–like a child in an arrested state of development, a p(r)etty play thing for life.

Often identified as Ibsen’s “feminist play,” A Doll’s House was so controversial when it premiered  that it was banned in Germany and Britain until Ibsen wrote an alternate “happy ending.”  The irony, of course, lies in the fact that the original ending (and the one that gets staged almost without exception) is what most now would consider the “happy ending” because in this version, Nora leaves her oppressive husband, boldly vowing to honor her duty to herself, to her own human rights, even if it means casting off her socially prescribed marital and maternal duties.  Nora’s dramatic exit from the stage and her marriage has come to be viewed as a historic social moment because of its metaphoric resonance–she had also slammed the door on Bourgeois patriarchy.  Watching the play today reminds us of how far we have come and how far we still have to go to fully achieve gender equality.

In the revival currently running at Palm Beach Dramaworks, directed by William Hayes, Nora Helmer appears not childlike and helpless but constrained and crafty, even if complicit in her own subordination.  This Nora kneels in subjection–sometimes genuine, sometimes feigned–at least five times throughout the performance.  Early on, Hayes takes every opportunity to emphasize what may appear to those unfamiliar with the play as Nora’s self-serving money obsession, by having her count her kroner like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.  This choice adds greater impact later on when Nora reveals to Mrs. Linde that she is not, in fact, a spendthrift, but that she is repaying a loan she secretly obtained years ago to finance a doctor-prescribed trip to Italy for her ailing husband.  A petite-bodied, vocally gifted Margery Lowe seamlessly and flawlessly embodies the role of Nora, subtly revealing the complexity of a character that is vain but selfless, confident but cautious.  I overheard some audience members discussing Nora’s constant birdlike singing and her transfixion during the tarantella dance, and they actually bought the great Victorian lie that she is “hysterical.” Sorry folks, she is subjugated, shackled, disenfranchised, not mentally ill.  Michael St. Pierre portrays Torvald Helmer  as  a formidable patriarch, though one not completely unlikeable or altogether devoid of tenderness. Thankfully, for example, he does not chastise Nora by pulling her  by the ear in the opening scene as the original stage directions indicate, and the two share several kisses and embraces, suggesting their marriage is not completely loveless.  Michael Amico’s red and gold hued set and Brian O’Keefe’s beautiful period costumes are perfect complements that effectively transport us to a bygone era.  It is no wonder this production has regularly been selling out–the show is well done on all counts. Catch it before it closes this coming Sunday, November 29.

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2 Responses to “‘Tis the Season for “A Doll’s House” at Dramaworks (Review)”
  1. Andrew Utter says:

    Wow, I didn’t know that about the pulling by the ear. I’ll have to go back and look at the play.

    Interestingly, Ibsen was invite by a group dedicated to promoting women’s rights to address them on some special occasion, and he told them that he had never been interested in women’s rights, but rather in human rights. I don’t say this to diminish the significance of the ongoing emancipation of women, but rather to answer the charge that the play might be dated because women have come so far. He is fundamentally dealing with the awakening of the subjugated to their plight, and the instance is a woman in the Victorian era, but the play is not limited to that.

  2. nstodard says:

    Andrew, thanks for the comment. Completely agree that the play’s exploration of oppressive forces in society is not limited to the subjugation of women. Religious (in)tolerance is certainly another. Nora’s emphasis on her human worth, rather than her female worth, also sounds a chord with the language expressed today by gay rights advocates–most notably the Human Rights Campaign.

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