A Real Doll
Western Stage's A Doll's House is a brilliant production of the feminist classic.
Thursday, October 9, 2003
Photo: Nora (Stephanie Walsh, right) learns of a crime she never knew she committed from Mr. Krogstad (Jeff McGrath).
Theater historians place the beginning of the era of Modern Drama in the late 1870s, with Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen''s The Pillars of Society and A Doll''s House. Today many of Ibsen''s ideas seem commonplace, but this is because we have embraced them wholeheartedly. When written, they were truly revolutionary. His was a drama of social criticism that revealed the dangers of complacency and slavish adherence to societal norms and expectations. His plays depicted the honest struggle for individual integrity, the agonizing conflict between staying true to oneself and fulfilling one''s duty to others.
In 1879, A Doll''s House shook the world. At a time when women were considered hysterical, illogical creatures wholly dependent on their fathers or husbands for the most basic sustenance, Ibsen dared to suggest that women were thinking creatures capable of deep moral judgment who needed freedom and independence.
Over the decades, with the rise of feminism, Ibsen''s society-rattling work gathered dust. It was never out of production, but it began to take on the patina of an historical document--the kiss of death for live theater.
The current production at The Western Stage shatters that patina and breathes new life into this classic. In the grip of this talented company, A Doll''s House becomes an immediate, enthralling exploration of the human psyche.
Director Sheldon Deckelbaum takes on conventionalism by mixing theatrical styles. Ibsen suggested his plays be directed and acted so that the audience felt they were voyeurs peering through a keyhole into real life happenings. Thirty years later, theater theoreticians and playwrights developed Expressionism, a movement that rebelled against Realism and sought to externalize the inner, psychological experience of the central character. By combining these two dissimilar theatrical styles, Deckelbaum allows an audience to be once more shaken by the central character''s sense of dehumanization and despair, and to be once more lifted by her escape from both.
Frankly, however, it is only because of the impressive abilities of the cast that this approach works. There is not a weak performance during the evening. As the central figure, Nora, Stephanie Walsh is brittle and breathless. She allows us to see the effort Nora must go through to maintain the façade of being her husband''s "little songbird." Yet she also lets us see the character''s formidable strength. Many productions show Nora transformed by the end of the play, but Walsh gives us instead a Nora convinced she is right, but who is still in torment. It is a complex promise of growth yet to come.
As her husband Torvald, Jeffrey T. Heyer is excellent. Heyer shows us that Torvald is not a wicked man, he is simply benighted because he has bought into society''s expectations. The simplicity and depth of Heyer''s performance is a constant wonder. He moves with a compelling sense of honesty from the distracted businessman patronizing his wife so he can get some work done to the aroused lover to the shattered and rejected husband. Heyer adds significance to the play by forcing us to reckon with Torvald as a likeable character, not simply a domineering husband we can dismiss with scorn.
Jeff McGrath turns in a truly superb performance as Nils Krogstad, the dark force of the play. Perhaps the most expressionistic of all the performances, McGrath writhes about the stage like a snakelike Uriah Heep. It is breathtaking work worth the price of admission all on its own.
The setting and costume designs by Dohn Grube and Kathrine Ogletree respectively are stunning. They supplement the mixture of theatrical styles while giving the production a timeless feel. Ogletree''s costumes show the lines and styling of the 1950s while blending colors, textures and details of the 1870s. Grube''s set feels like a 1950s futuristic vision of a chess board.
Western Stage''s A Doll''s House is one of the best productions to come to Monterey County in months. It is not to be missed.