House Proud

The old Doll still resonates in this tight, effective production

Is A Doll's House dated? Henrik Ibsen's story of Nora Helmer trying to fit the mold of a banker's wife was revolutionary in 1879 for suggesting that a proper lady might have good reason to leave her proper husband. Nora packs her bags and declares her need to live her own life, without the distractions of housekeeping. "You are first and foremost a wife and mother!" says her husband, Torvald, but Nora says no, she's a human being, and the years of childish role-playing have come to an end. "I must be completely alone if I am to learn about myself, and things beyond myself," she says, before striding out into the world.

The play was still revolutionary in 1973, when American women were shrugging off their housewife roles and Jane Fonda played Nora in a film version. But today A Doll's House belongs to received wisdom. Of course Nora should leave! Of course women should pursue careers! No one in 2004 would defend Torvald. He's such a pompous, patronizing ass he now plays like a villain in a melodrama, and in fact some audience members at the Geary Theater hissed him on opening night.

I bring this up only because Carey Perloff's near-seamless new production has a whiff of convention about it. Nothing seems dangerous or out of place. Stephen Caffrey's Torvald is full of air behind his pince-nez, like any Victorian fop; René Augesen -- brilliant as she is -- plays Nora with a touch of a British accent. It feels like an evening of Masterpiece Theatre.

Stephen Caffrey's Torvald shows René 
Augesen's Nora how to set a table.
Ken Friedman
Stephen Caffrey's Torvald shows René Augesen's Nora how to set a table.

Annie Smart's well-appointed set has pink flocked wallpaper and austere wooden furniture -- just Lutheran enough to seem stifling. Rising behind the wall are three more walls, each higher than the last, to give the impression of a shrinking room. A doll's table with tea service sits in front of the curtain before the show; nursery music tinkles offstage. It's all a bit literal.

Which doesn't mean "bad." Perloff has directed a tight, effective show, and also premiered a fine new translation by ACT dramaturge Paul Walsh. Good translations are invisible, and Walsh's not only avoids stilted English and modern slang but also sharpens a few important lines.

The star, though, is Augesen. She does lively, detailed work from the first scene through the last, starting with Nora as a frantic busybody skittering over her worries with fake smiles. ("Oh, Kristine, it's so wonderful to be alive and happy!" she says through gritted teeth.) Some of the smiles are real, though, and you're never sure if Nora's earnest -- or if she knows what "earnest" means -- until the end, when Augesen finds a dark register for her disillusionment. Torvald asks if Nora really has not been happy all these years.

"No," she says flatly. "Just cheerful."

Caffrey also plays a powerful Torvald. He's not only pompous and boisterous, but also deeply sentimental and sorry for himself. "No religion, no sense of duty, no morals -- you have destroyed my happiness!" he hollers during his final tantrum. Caffrey deserves extra credit for stepping late into this role; the first actor, Geordie Johnson, couldn't secure a visa from Canada. (But at least we know our immigration laws are working.)

James Carpenter is casual but sonorous as Dr. Rank, the Helmers' family friend. Joy Carlin and Zehra Berkman are solid as loyal servants; Joan Harris-Gelb does a sensitive job as a struggling friend of Nora named Kristine. Gregory Wallace plays a grim, sinister Krogstad, the insinuating employee in Torvald's office who has loaned Nora a secret sum of money and now wants a favor in return. It's an important role, and the only trouble with Wallace is that he's so used to playing comedies. Krogstad cannot be a ham, and sometimes you catch Wallace struggling to resist.

A Doll's House is not dated: Nora stands up to custom to meet the demands of her soul, and stories like that are always bracing. But the play no longer irritates an average theater audience, meaning that part of the life it possessed for a hundred years is gone. A story to bug an audience now might reverse Nora's situation, like Hanif Kureishi's novel Intimacy: In that book, a man leaves his wife and kids for "self-fulfillment," and voices of convention have howled that Kureishi's hero is a narcissistic scumbag, shirking his duties, etc. Maybe so. But what does that say about Nora, and the way we cheer her on? Is A Doll's House just a valedictory to the 1800s, as this production allows the audience to believe? ("Thank God that's over.") Or would Nora be a heroine now?

 
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