Ibsen’s cautionary tale of society’s winners and losers

Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) began his career as a poet and dramatist with plays that were intended to satisfy the audiences of his day. It was only later, in his middle-age, that he took his art to the next level, writing his social dramas, of which 1879’s A Doll’s House proved to be a notorious success. The plot of A Doll’s House begins with a successful, attractive couple, Nora and Torvald Helmer. They have done everything right, outwardly followed all the rules, and are just now on the brink of success. Two friends from years before who are down on their luck, do their best to cajole, blackmail, and destroy the happy couple. They succeed. In short, this is the plot of A Doll’s House.

The Arden Theatre Company is presenting a version of the Ibsen play by Simon Stephens at their intimate Arcadia Stage until March 4. Directed by Artistic Director Terrence J. Nolen, and Co-conceived by Mr. Nolen and Jorge Cousineau, this A Doll’s House has much to commend it.

The good news is the production looks wonderful, as it is in-the-round, with no seat set far from the action. Shortly into the play, we come to realize that this version plays up the physical chemistry between the husband and wife protagonists in a startling way. Torvald (a passionate Cody Nickell) is constantly kissing, nuzzling, and touching his wife (Katharine Powell), as she coquettishly encourages him. Too often, Torvald is contained, exhibiting extraordinary self-control; not so here. This is a logical move for the dramatic action, since their passion for each other is part of their scandalous secret, and slams against everyone else we meet in the play, since all the others are loveless and unlovable, envious of them both. Remember that Scandinavia in 1879 was conservative and Protestant, so that this alone was enough to shock audiences. Not to mention the secret – that Torvald had tuberculosis, and needed a rest cure which had to be funded by forgery.  In the 19th century, tuberculosis was akin to the AIDS epidemic in the 20th century: good people didn’t suffer from it. To have it come out, Torvald would have been shunned, his future destroyed.

The other joy of this production are the two boys, Ivar and Jon (beautifully played by Zach O’Connor and Benjamin Snyder), who inhabit their characters with extraordinary warmth and truth. Having the two small boys enter with their nanny holding a baby was also cause for 19th century audiences to shift uncomfortably in their seats, since this displayed a certain amount of intemperance in a marriage which is only nine years old.

Enter Ibsen’s marvelous creation, Kristine Linde (played here by Becky Chong). The maid Helene (Emily Kleimo) tells her mistress that an odd, seemingly unsavory woman is seeking entrance into the house, claiming to know Nora. Entering, Nora doesn’t recognize her “old school chum,” since three years of working for a living has ruined Kristine’s health, and aged her beyond her years. So much so that Dr. Rank (played here by the always interesting Scott Greer), dying from tertiary syphilis, easily passes her on the stairs. Kristine had years before married an elderly, although wealthy, man for what he could do for her mother and three brothers. A staggering declaration is made that the marriage produced no children, strongly indicating it was purely a marriage of convenience for both. Kristine then tells Nora that once her rich husband died, his business failed, leaving her penniless, so she has had to scrape by these three long years, being abandoned by her three brothers who have married well and no longer have any use for her. Kristine then tells Nora that she heard of Torvald’s fantastic success in leading the bank, and hopes to ride the wave to secure a good job. It is Christmas Eve, a visit timed for the maximum guilt quotient by the cynical, manipulative Kristine. Nora agrees, and thereby sets about creating her own downfall.

It may be unfair to compare this production to the one seen in Brooklyn in 1991, when Ingmar Bergman brought his Royal Drama Company from Sweden, starring the extraordinary Pernilla Ostergren as Nora. Ms. Ostergren (later marrying cinematographer Bille August), later known as Pernilla August, was an incandescent Nora. Ms. Powell acquitted herself well in a difficult role which takes Nora from happy and contented to sleep-deprived, contaminated by evil (to the extent she was afraid of being near her children), and suicidal in a matter of hours. Much, much more could have been made of the pivotal roles of Kristine and Krogstad. Even the heartbreaking revelation of the nanny fell short of what could have ideally happened.

A rarely performed play, this production of A Doll’s House is a must-see experience for every theatre-goer. Luckily, it has been extended to March 4. Go see it.

Ibsen’s drama, A Doll’s House, is at the Arcadia Stage of the Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia, until March 4. Student rush tickets are only $10 with ID. For information and tickets, www.ardentheatre.org




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