Addison — Some marriages disintegrate at the seams, slowly—each stitch giving way in agonized slow-mo until nothing recognizable remains. Others explode like shrapnel bombs, hurling sharp objects and deadly words at anything, anyone in range.
And some go down suddenly, in a quiet whoosh, stripping away illusion to shine a bright white light on the emptiness of what only looked like love.
In Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, adapted and directed by WaterTower Theatre artistic director Joanie Schultz, a couple finds their marriage tested by her secret and his response—and the white light aimed at their lives may be too bright to bear.
Radical riffs on the classics are hot properties in today’s theatre. Schultz’ mission in this fast-moving 90-minute version of Doll’s House is less dramatic, perhaps, but both timely and eye-opening: she sharpens our sense that Nora Helmer and her husband Torvald might be a couple we know, not just classic figures from the History of Theatre.
Watching Kate Paulsen as Nora chirp and flutter her way through the first scenes, in fact, she’s oddly familiar—the kind of playful Southern-Norwegian-belle young wife we can spot having lunch in the Park Cities with friends…or showing up on a fictional Real Housewives of Dallas: Nora has a deep, dark secret! What will happen when husband Tory finds out? There’s a vein of Ibsen running through the works of Tennessee Williams and other Southern writers obsessed with the dramarama of family life. Perhaps from where we sit today, the flow is a two-way street. We can almost see Torvald (Sam Henderson), who treats Nora like a much-loved (but sometimes naughty) child, telling a buddy, “My baby’s such a sweet thing—but she’s an airhead. I decide, and she likes it.”
Both Nora and Torvald have been well trained to play the game of life and marriage just as they do: Paulsen’s Nora in a high-voiced, almost giddy performance style as the sheltered “songbird” wife who (she comes to realize) was “handed over” from father to husband, never facing life on her own. And Henderson’s Torvald—always controlling, always joking about Nora’s girlish ways—plays the straight-arrow man of the house, an honest, hard-working striver holding fast to a set of fixed rules and expectations of himself and other people. He’s a talker, precise and tightly wound, and a surprisingly delicate instrument. What will happen to him—and her—if the game drops away, and real life comes at them head on?
Chelsea Warren’s set design lets us know something’s up before a word is spoken. Her super-scaled painted drapes rise high on the walls and frame the famous exit door of the Helmer home—visually shrinking the frou-frou Victorian furniture into pieces from…well, a doll’s house. Giant Art Nouveau leaves and tendrils fall to the floor, flow across carpets and spill over the edge of the stage. They build a sense of organic life onstage, leaving us wondering what kind of growth this room might see.
Schultz’ adaptation is a very effective tweak of the original—particularly in a short, vital addition at the end. And Ibsen’s story is respected: it’s all here, with almost no plot points lost along the way. The play’s longest face-to-face conversations are pared down without sounding rushed (though a couple of Nora’s brief, agitated soliloquies might have remained). And the light-handed update of language isn’t jarring, but makes several lines land with greater force, as if the #MeToo movement were bumping up against the 19th-century rulebook:
Torvald: No man would sacrifice his honor.
Nora [after a pause, and a long, steady look]: It’s a thing millions of women do every day.
Schultz isn’t trying to cut through the period style of Ibsen’s work—but to let us see past the flowing skirts and high collars, to experience just why and how this play shocked late-19th-century audiences with its blunt realism. Paulsen (seen as sister Jane in WTT’s Pride and Prejudice) runs with that ball, veering desperately between child-wife mode and her very different demeanor as a woman with a secret she doesn’t want Torvald to know. She is torn between fear of his reaction, and hope that a “wonderful thing” will happen—that faced with new truths, Torvald will prove himself the stand-up partner she needs.
Because when the game ends, that’s when you find out what’s real about your marriage, and what’s just been sweet talk and role playing. Will one of them—or both—be able to break out of the cage their world’s rules and regs have put them in?
Ibsen doesn’t give us as much to go on with Torvald, but we know by now that Nora has a brain. She plays the game she’s been dealt—it’s how she gets ahead in the world—but she has a code of honor too. Each of her relationships with men has a transactional element that touches on money or financial help, but Nora draws lines. She promises both old friend Kristine (a forceful, warm Gloria Vivica Benavides) and Krogstad (Clay Wheeler, desperate and banged up by life, as the bank employee blackmailing Nora over a secret loan) to help them get or keep jobs at Torvald’s bank—and despite what it costs her, she fights for them both.
Torvald’s best friend Dr. Rank (Brian Mathis is witty and sad as the dying, self-aware physician) would probably be glad to help her pay off the loan. But once he tells Nora he’d “give his life for her” her woman’s honor won’t let her ask. Ivy Opdyke, loving as Nora’s old nurse who cares for the couple’s children (unseen but heard in Brian McDonald’s sound design), rounds out the compact cast.
Amy Poe and Melissa Panzarello’s period costumes—shining blacks for widowed Kristine, tasteful colors and lace for Nora—fit each character well, and lighting designer Driscoll Otto’s deep, muted lighting of the Helmer’s parlor never feels too flip-a-switch modern. And another mention of Chelsea Warren’s set design won’t hurt a thing. There’s more to that drapery than meets the eye.
And lucky audiences can get in on a literary “conversation” between the Schultz adaptation and Stage West’s production of Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2, opening on Oct. 28. Hnath’s 2017 play picks up the story some 15 years later, speculating on what might have happened to Nora and Torvald in the intervening years.
WTT’s A Doll’s House runs through Nov. 4; on Nov. 17, the cast will travel to Fort Worth to join the cast of A Doll’s House, Part 2 in a discussion following the 8 p.m. performance. There’s also an opportunity to see both plays in one day, at the 2 p.m. Nov. 3 matinee at WaterTower, and the 8 p.m. of A Doll’s House, Part 2.
See the original, see the sequel—and let’s talk.
» Also jumping on the Ibsen train is Undermain Theatre, which does The Lady from the Sea in November; look for a podcast about Ibsen appearing on TheaterJones next week.