Fort Worth — What makes a classic might not be easy to define, but you certainly know it when you see it. Stolen Shakespeare Guild’s A Doll’s House is a case in point. Paired with Tartuffe as part of their Classic Fest 2016, it holds the audience’s attention through two intermissions at the Fort Worth Community Art Center’s Sanders Theater. Considering the swing dancing and art exhibitions going on in the next room, something out of the ordinary must be drawing them back to their seats.
Playwright Henrik Ibsen’s reputation as the father of realism often sings a siren song to actors luring them to the rocks of over-indulgence. Director Sharon Benge steers the ensemble clear of those rocks keeping this outing simple and taut. With Lauren Morgan’s period costumes and Jason Morgan’s fully furnished set, this sturdy production would be perfect for any student who wonders how wordy required reading could be compelling.
Lauren Morgan plays the titular doll, Nora, who lives in the house headed authoritatively by husband, Torvald (Richard Stubblefield). Even for Norway in 1880, their relationship seems a little cringey. Morgan as Nora always has breath left over after a line, giving her an exaggerated childishness. Stubblefield’s Torvald twists his frustration at his wife’s shortcomings into awkward pet names, mostly birds. Third wheel to this dysfunction is Torvald’s friend, Dr. Rank, played with a beguiling pathos by Michael Johnson.
Into the mix comes an old friend, Mrs. Linde (Julie Rhodes) to whom Nora can unload a heap of exposition. Her appearance unseats the position of the instantly recognizable villain, Krogstad (Andrew Manning). You see, Torvald has finally been given control of the bank where Krogstad works. Mrs. Linde, an old friend in need, seems his perfect replacement, except that the past has a way of coming back to haunt you when you’re at the mercy of a clever playwright.
But that’s not what makes this a classic.
At the heart of this domestic drama with melodramatic trappings is the upheaval of the traditional roles relegated to women. If the self-reliant character of Mrs. Linde wasn’t forward thinking enough, Nora’s unrecognized resilience and eventual metamorphosis makes her the uber-feminist forerunner. The nasty woman, if you will. As spectacular as her emergence is to behold it is a little embarrassing in light of our current political climate. How can we just be getting around to the possibility of a female President with a character like this over a hundred years ago?
The ending is scorched earth as far as her family is concerned, but Nora’s future fills the audience with enough hope to smooth over those misgivings. As an added bonus, this production boasts an unusually strong pairing in the roles that Ibsen offers as an alternative relationship model. Where Manning is successful in creating an unlikeable villain in Krogstad and Rhodes a sympathetic (and uncharacteristically charismatic) spinster in Mrs. Linde, the real bonus is their chemistry. Having seen the Torvald/Nora relationship destruct under the weight of it’s own falsity, it’s particularly felicitous to have the burgeoning Linde/Krogstad relationship seem so solid. Director Benge is the beneficiary of the bond these actors have forged in the leading roles of the other show in the rep, Tartuffe, undoubtedly.
Whatever the case, the feeling of the audience at the end had a surprising buoyancy, considering the devastation left behind. Progress isn’t pretty. It’s beautiful.
Maybe that’s why it’s a classic.
The Classics Fest schedule for the final weekend is:
- 8 p.m. Oct. 28: Tartuffe
- 2 p.m. Oct. 29: A Doll's House
- 8 p.m. Oct. 29: A Doll's House
- 2 p.m. Oct. 30: Tartuffe