A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, Williamstown Theatre Festival, NIkos Stage, July 20 – 31

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Michael Maher, Lily Rabe, and Josh Hamilton in A Doll's House at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Photo T. Charles Erickson.
Michael Maher, Lily Rabe, and Josh Hamilton in A Doll’s House at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Photo T. Charles Erickson.

A Doll’s House
by Henrik Ibsen

Williamstown Theatre Festival, NIkos Stage
July 20 – 31

translated by Paul Walsh
directed by Sam Gold
scenic design – David Korins
costume design – Kaye Voyce
lighting design – Ben Stanton
sound design – Jane Shaw
movement consultant – Dontee Kiehn

Torvald Helmer – Josh Hamilton
Anne-Marie – Zainab Jah
Dr. Rank – Matthew Maher
Nora Helmer – Lily Rabe
Nils Krogstadt – Adam Rothenberg
Kristine Linde – Lili Taylor

One more delicious and satisfying classic in the Nikos. Following the intimate character of A Streetcar Named Desire, the Williamstown Theatre Festival has served the playwright and the public most honorably in Sam Gold’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Like Streetcar, the production was meticulously detailed, scrupulously respectful of the play (whatever liberties might have been taken), and full of life, thanks to some vivid performances by outstanding actors. Jenny Gersten’s WTF seems to be hitting its stride in these physically small, but richly imagined performances, a new feature of the Festival since the construction of the “62 Center. Perhaps we should remember that what is now the subsidiary Nikos stage used to be the Adams Memorial Theater, and that an attempt to stage Chekhov’s Three Sisters on the Main Stage as a luxury production was a notable failure, not that there haven’t been some outstanding successes there as well.

When I go to see a classic nineteenth century play in almost any theater, I go prepared for some egregious flaw that will almost vitiate the whole enterprise—usually the result of making it a vehicle for some producer’s idea of a “star,” but anachronisms, gimmicky interpretations, or just a few weak actors rank high as well. There seems inevitably to be that moment which will make one cringe. That moment never came in Gold’s A Doll’s House—and that seemed almost like one of those miracles Nora was going on about. For one thing Ibsen isn’t easy to bring off, although I’ve never seen an Ibsen production that was a total flop. We study his plays in school, after all, and he wrote consciously about issues that were most intensely felt in his own time. Happily people actually learned something from his plays and from other social commentators of a similar bent, and certain specifics of his world have changed, for example the legal subjugation of the wife to the husband. On the other hand, taken up to a higher conceptual level, most of Ibsen’s issues are still with us in some form or another. Hypocrisy springs eternal. The relationship between the male and female sexes is far from easy. Marriage and family are highly dubious. It is hard to imagine that the human race will ever be free from past mistakes that refuse to fade away. A Doll’s House in particular is a part of most people’s education, really, and it is hard to experience affecting drama in something that is so familiar. Nora is the archetype of the liberated woman. We all remember Nora’s closing of the door just before the final curtain.

Then there is the problem of Ibsen’s language. He wrote at a time when Norway was only a few decades away from centuries of Danish rule. Danish had been the official language for all that time, and Norwegians were understandably keen to move away from it, but there was no dominant local tradition to follow. To simplify the story greatly, they faced a choice of Danish assimilated to local forms and pronunciation, or traditional Norwegian dialects, of which there were many, all confined to rural localities. In addition to the realistic plays his is best known for, Ibsen wrote very different theater works in poetic language, but for his realistic plays he chose the Norwegianized Danish current in his time but no longer used in Norway. Specialists in the language of Ibsen’s time are not sufficiently abundant to offer their expertise to the many translations seemingly made ad hoc for new productions. Most translations come from literary or theatrical people who are either inexpert in the original language or totally ignorant of it and base their work on earlier translations. Hence most versions you will hear on stage are a mixture of present-day colloquialisms in—let’s say for our purposes—American or British English and the nineteenth-century diction of Ibsen’s early translators. I don’t understand why it’s so uncommon for these “translators” to go the whole way and produce a fluent English version in contemporary language. In Berkshire Theatre Festival’s excellent production of Ghosts in 2009, that discrepancy kept noisomely resurfacing, and it did as well in Paul Walsh’s version of A Doll’s House. As good as Ghosts was, Sam Gold and his cast handled these archaisms more skilfully, actually turning them to advantage in most cases.

This was a modern dress production, set sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s in a distinctly American environment, so much so, that I occasionally wondered why they didn’t go all the way and call kronors dollars. Still there was something of the northern European patriarch in Helmer, as well as the randy American husband, and traces of unamerican formalities remained. The Helmers’ residence, with its lps and portable record-player, was in an old house, suggesting a middle-class Norwegian dwelling of Ibsen’s own time. The costumes hovered ambiguously between the European and American and the 1950s and the present day. David Korins’ set didn’t miss a detail in the array of possessions an American couple might accumulate before they begin to rise in the world. They furniture looked old, contemporary in style, but possibly second-hand. The period was largely appropriate, since many American women lived in a world which, if not legally identical to late nineteenth-century Norway, had much in common with it in many ways. Young women “normally” went straight from their parents’ family into marriage as Nora did, perhaps via some respectable educational institution for young women, and they were expected to live within certain values as wives, home-makers, and mothers. Many American women of that generation lived through experiences similar to Nora’s, perhaps distantly inspired by reading A Doll’s House in school. One can only admire the way in which the late nineteenth and the mid twentieth century were fused in the production. In this way, the characters’ Victorianisms not only avoided discomfort, they added to the eloquence and effectiveness of this performance that hovered between two worlds. After all, why would a director want to deprive Ibsen’s educated nineteenth century characters of their ability to express ideas, even received ones?

Lily Rabe, Josh Hamilton in A Doll's House at Williamstown Theatre Festival. PhotoT. Charles Erickson.
Lily Rabe, Josh Hamilton in A Doll’s House at Williamstown Theatre Festival. PhotoT. Charles Erickson.

On top of all the obstacles I have mentioned, there were plenty of risks in the approach of Sam Gold and his actors. They got away with most of them. Lily Rabe’s larger-than-life Nora was the most extreme. At the very beginning, she enters—to an especially grating Bing Crosby Christmas song—carrying bags of presents, teetering on very high heels, which made her, already a tall woman, look terribly constricted in the sitting room, which occupied the front of the stage. It seemed incredible that her slim body could turn around in this narrow space—unlike any of the other characters, who seemed made to scale, above all, her husband, Torvald. Rabe’s Nora was unlike any I’ve ever seen: loud and brash, bold in all her ploys in getting what she wants from her husband. Their default mode of interaction is constant flirtation, interlarded with occasional preachments from Torvald. Nora has learned how to keep him on a constant erotic simmer, so that she usually gets what she wants—in most instances, money. Throughout those few days over Christmas, Torvald never gets his way with her, though. One thing or another, as the pressure on Nora mounts, prevents it. This was a brilliant way of establishing continuity throughout the evening, and a constant sexual energy, alive in both participants. It also cast Nora in the part of the wife as whore: even under the respectability of the couple’s roof, she has to do tricks—”singing and dancing” to entertain her husband—to get the money she craves. Nonetheless they consider their marriage blissful, and in fact Gold makes it clear that they are by no means an unhappy or ill-suited couple Until the disgraced Krogstadt—played with impressive imagination and color by Adam Rothenberg—and his threats turn things sour, Nora can play her wifely role with joyful pleasure. In fact she needs the money she wheedles from her husband to pay off a debt she has incurred to give him a lifesaving year in Italy, at a time when his health was bad. The very flamboyance and volume of Rabe’s Nora, could easily prove obnoxious, but she brought it off without a false note. And, in the climactic tarantella, it was gratifying that she can actually dance, and dance well, with all the wildness called for in the text, and again seeming like a goddess squeezed into a cramped earthly box.  At the end, when her ordeal has purged her of her domestic persona, and she is about to leave the house forever, in contemporary slacks and sensible shoes, she finally fits into the space. The maturity and shading of Rabe’s Nora was astonishing, entirely worthy of a theater brat of her distinguished lineage.

Josh Hamilton’s Torvald was also superb. He flowed naturally between the stuffiness of his position and the natural earthy appetites of a man with a beautiful wife. I also admired the skill with which he delivered some of his more Victorian lines in a flat, but distinct and meaningful way, suggesting the patter of a man who beleives what he says without ever having examined it. Hamilton is clearly an actor of sophistication and empathy, who used his good looks to make himself more than a modern-day Hunding, and he projected a certain sincerity and limited goodwill also. I thought Adam Rothenberg brilliant in projecting a whole range of feelings and fleeting personae in his role of the despised Krogstadt, now risen to a low job at Torvald’s bank. He managed to combine the feeling of entitlement of a disgraced person who has paid his debt to society—as he sees it (He has at least suffered.) and a sleazy outsider who has to resort to schemes—basically blackmail—to achieve his goals. Rothenberg’s performance was a perfectly disheveled tour de force.

Lili Taylor and Lily Rabe in A Doll's House at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Photo T. Charles Erickson.
Lili Taylor and Lily Rabe in A Doll’s House at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Photo T. Charles Erickson.

I also like Lili Taylor’s Kristine a lot, although her delivery was often rather deliberate and flat, as if she hadn’t fully digested her lines. However, when a lack of characterization began to show, she had a way of turning on a beautiful smile that never failed to carry us through. Most likely, by the time you read this and go to see it, she’ll feel more confident in the role, not that it wasn’t very good as it was. Her character seemed complete, real, and entirely sympathetic.

Matthew Maher’s Dr. Rank was a bit puzzling at first, even if one knows the play well, because of the strangeness of his nasal, slightly effeminate speech, but I realized soon enough that he was trying to give a realistic performance as a person with a nervous disorder.  Maher’s performance bordered on caricature, but the warm feelings he aroused as this unfortunate person, living a limited, isolated life through no fault of his own prevented that. Through Dr. Rank Ibsen reminds us more than once of how a later generation pays for the indulgences of its forebears, and through contrast he emphasizes how his married friends are luckier than most.

Zainab Jah played Anne-Marie most sympthetically, and it was clever ro present the children’s caregiver as a Jamaican nanny. However, she is not nearly old enough to have been Nora’s nurse as well, and the lines she speaks clearly contradict her appearance. On the other hand, New Yorkers know that those stalwarts don’t let themselves go grey, and we can give her the benefit of the doubt. Eliza Huberth brought vivid energy and color to her small role as Helene, who directly looks after Nora’s children, played soundly by Sol and Rose Sutter in their first professional theater roles.

This production was anything but subtle, revolving as it did around Lily Rabe’s high-key performance, but the play isn’t that subtle, either, and color and energy suit it well. The action flowed along with vigor and a perfect sense of pacing, within extreme parameters. The slow scenes were so well managed that the shift was barely noticeable. In the famous last scene, Ibsen the social comentator comes front and center, and, if you consider the systematic way he makes his Helmers go through Nora’s issues, suddenly full-blown and clearly articulated in her mind, it is a miracle that it doesn’t lapse into the dry exposition of a tract. Yet we know that Nora isn’t stupid, and her agenda pours forth with all the force of energies that have long been bottled up. Rabe and Hamilton played the scene with moving straighforwardness and honesty. The issues themselves are still powerful; Ibsen’s statement of them are still classic; and Gold and his actors were smart enough not to interfere.

WTF’s Doll’s House is unique. You should feel guilty if you miss it.

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