FREE BIRD: A Doll’s House | St. Louis Actor’s Studio

19th century audiences were scandalized by the play’s depiction of a marriage falling apart. The story is the same, but a 21st century audience perceives the piece radically differently.

 

It was the slam heard ‘round the world when Henrick Ibsen’s Nora Helmer walked out of her life in contemporaneous productions of A Doll’s House. Nineteenth century audiences were scandalized by the Norwegian playwright’s depiction of a marriage falling apart due to both the husband’s and the wife’s acceptance of the traditional romantic notions of “marriage.” When an incident causes both to become disillusioned, Nora explains her position to husband, Torvald,  and refuses his blandishments to stay. She is unmoved by his protestations of love, his references to their children, to what people will think and anything else he throws out in a desperate attempt to keep her in her gilded cage. But this bird has flown before the door is even opened.

 

St. Louis Actor’s Studio now presents A Doll’s House with Julie Layton and R. Travis Estes as the Helmers. The story is the same, but a 21st century audience perceives the piece radically differently from those who saw it in Ibsen’s own time. People practically hissed Torvald and were vocal in their support of the oppressed Nora who had believed that money was all it would take to be truly happy, until she ran smack up against her illusions and found them false.

Ibsen bowed to pressure from his original leading lady and wrote an alternate ending in which Nora, seeing her children, changes her mind and stays. He hated it and restored the original final scene as soon as possible. In doing so, he may have created the first real feminist statement made through the medium of drama since the Greeks. Nora leaves her family to be true to herself, not because she doesn’t care about them; rather, she realizes that she can’t be a wife and mother without possessing a sense of self. She went from being her father’s “doll” to her husband’s, and she has created a second generation of dolls out of her own children. Torvald is “daddy” to the lot of them. Even Nora has to hide her beloved macaroons because Torvald has said they’re bad for her teeth and forbidden them.

Not incidentally, Nora’s own father died at a crisis point early in her marriage. Torvald  became ill and Nora was told the only way he was to survive would be to go to a warm climate. She was also informed (as was the custom of the time) not to let Torvald know how sick he really was. So she told him she had gotten money from her father to go to Italy because she was exhausted from her pregnancy and needed a rest. The source of the money was a lie, however, and at the time the play opens, the chickens have come home to roost in the person of Krogstad (Greg Johnston) a clerk in the bank where Torvald is about to become manager. He had also found himself in difficult circumstances back then, and he became what we would call a loan shark. Nora has been assiduously paying him back for 10 years, but that isn’t the problem. It seems that her father was too ill to guarantee the loan, she forged his signature and Krogstad has figured it out. Learning that Torvald is bent on firing him, he visits Nora with his evidence and threatens to expose her if she doesn’t talk her husband into saving his job.

Nora has another visitor around this time, an old school friend Christine Linde ( Missy Miller) who will eventually become the Deus ex Machina that could extricate Nora from her mess, but it doesn’t go that way, and Christine’s decision about how to handle the situation is a wise one. To me, one of the few flaws in this play is the coincidence of Christine and Krogstad’s earlier acquaintance, but considering how everything plays out, it is ultimately justified. The fact that Torvald chooses Christine to replace Krogstad is appropriately ironic in a play already brimming with irony. Also Christine provides a sounding board for Nora so that we can learn that she has economized, taken in sewing and done copying work (which she has enjoyed) to be able to make the payments. She plays the pretty plaything for her husband, but she has handled real adult responsibility throughout their marriage.

Julie Layton is terrific as Nora, and Estes keeps up with her in Act II. Their final conversation is devastating. Layton plays all the nuances in Nora, and they are numerous and often subtle: She flutters about like the tiny birds and animals to which her husband constantly—and gratingly—compares her. She tries to play Krogstad to save herself  (it doesn’t work) but she refuses help from her last hope, her husband’s friend Dr. Rank (Chad Morris) whom she learns is in love with her. When Nora becomes desperate, Layton is pale and shaky. When she finally has clarity, she is like a beautiful marble statue. I’m a Julie Layton fan from way back, but the richness of this performance surprised me. Torvald has a rather thankless job in the first act: to be unsympathetic and loving at the same time. He’s also dull. So, Estes has to maintain that character, then when he realizes what’s really happening, he turns on a dime and he becomes the desperate one. The real-life husband and wife have excellent chemistry in their scenes together.

Johnston is a convincing Krogstad—nervous in the beginning, then more comfortable once he realizes his power, and he is touching as a man in love. Miller is a bit stiff, but she has her moments, especially in the single scene she has alone with Krogstad. Morris is effective as the doomed doctor whose father had syphilis and passed the effects on to him. Sally Eaton as the maid/nanny who tended motherless child Nora and now looks after Nora’s own children has a rather thankless part, but she is necessary to the story. We see very little of the Helmer children played by Aliyah Studi and Cam Vennard, but they are adorable, and a game of hide-and-seek allows us to see Nora behaves more like a sibling to her children than a parent.

The set is enhanced by a red velvet draped arch to indicate a soaring ceiling and Torvald’s move up in the world. The furniture is minimal and a bit shabby, but Torvald’s increased salary will take care of that. The space works well for the play. One puzzling touch is the floor which is painted with various, seeming random images of people, places, things, words and numbers. This could either be a metaphor for Nora’s confusion, or conversely, for the world outside her head with which she has little acquaintance. Perhaps, Patrick Huber (scenic artist, as well as set and lighting designer) is messing with us, i.e., “Let’s see what the reviewers make of this floor, kids” (evil laugh). The lighting is effective both behind the translucent half walls of the parlor and above, although the switch to a very bright light at the critical moment in the final conversation between Nora and Torvald seems a little too obvious. Theresa Doggett’s period costumes are lovely on the Helmers, and Christine’s shabby garments play up the difference in her circumstances and Nora’s.

Milt Zoth has assembled a fine cast and crew overall and the direction is spot on. The incidental music gives a sense of Hitchcockian suspense at times, which is also fitting, considering Hitchcock’s uses of women in his films. Robin Weatherall is the designer. I hope this absorbing and rewarding production gets the support it deserves from the St. Louis theatre-going community.

A Doll’s House is at The St. Louis Actor’s Studio through Apr. 25, 2010. You may call 314-458-2978 or visit www.stlas.com. | Andrea Braun

Andrea Braun is a regular reviewer for KDHX and contributes to The Vital Voice, as well as PlaybackSTL.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply