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The Huntington's Production Proves There's Reason To Revisit 'A Doll’s House'

Andrea Syglowski and Sekou Laidlow in The Huntington's production of "A Doll's House." (Courtesy T. Charles Erikson/Huntington Theatre Company)
Andrea Syglowski and Sekou Laidlow in The Huntington's production of "A Doll's House." (Courtesy T. Charles Erikson/Huntington Theatre Company)
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At the end of "A Doll’s House," the door slams — but is it with a bang or a whimper, as if filtered through mothballs and history? In the Huntington Theatre Company revival, the portal, as if acknowledging its fame, takes center stage, the rest of the title edifice having eerily drifted away. But, of course, the shock attached to the iconic play’s once-unthinkable conclusion drifted away long ago.

Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 "modern" tragedy, with its assault on societally straitjacketed conventional marriage, isn’t going to send an opening-night audience scurrying for the smelling salts anymore. The trick is to make the play matter as more than a landmark revisited. And in the barebones, sexually-tinged staging helmed by Melia Bensussen for the Huntington (at the Boston University Theatre through Feb. 5), it does.

Which is not to say that the production achieves all it sets out to do. Ibsen’s feminist rallying cry, which takes place at Christmastime in the newly prosperous Helmer household, depicts the gradual dawning on its heroine that her happy marriage is a sham. When an old financial indiscretion, committed for love, comes back to haunt her, she is at first desperate to hide it, then equally frantic to assure herself her husband will rise to selfless heights upon its discovery. That doesn’t happen, of course. And neither do the spouses, as apparently intended, come off as equally sympathetic victims of the rigid rules of society. Unless you count that the condescending, self-righteous husband will now have to shell out for a full-time babysitter.

The Helmers (played by Andrea Syglowski and Sekou Laidlow) in the Huntington's "A Doll's House." (Courtesy T. Charles Erikson/Huntington Theatre Company)
The Helmers (played by Andrea Syglowski and Sekou Laidlow) in the Huntington's "A Doll's House." (Courtesy T. Charles Erikson/Huntington Theatre Company)

The Huntington production marks the American debut of British writer Bryony Lavery’s 2004 English translation of “A Doll’s House,” taken from a literal transcription of the Norwegian. But this is no contemporary “adaptation” like Theresa Rebeck’s “DollHouse” (which was produced by New Repertory Theatre in 2011). Lavery’s work, though organized to eliminate a second intermission, is painstakingly faithful to Ibsen — both to his tale of an infantilized wife who must leave her marriage to find herself and to his seamless directness.

The production tips the action into the first half of the 20th century, with the women in cinched or dropped-waist, below-the-knee skirts and the gents in stiff collars and colorful waistcoats. (Male plumage, anyone?) But the swirling backdrop behind scenic designer James Noone’s onstage “dollhouse” evokes Ibsen countryman Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting “The Scream” (without its screamer). And the societal strictures of Ibsen’s day — plus the sort of sex games they might invite — remain intact and implied.

Nora, the flighty heroine of “A Doll’s House,” is husband Torvald’s “songbird,” “hummingbird,” “skylark,” "squirrel" — every diminishing endearment short of Bambi. But at the Huntington, Nora is portrayed by the powerful Andrea Syglowski, whom audiences may recall as the sexually formidable Vanda of “Venus in Fur.” (Interestingly, David Ives’ play takes its inspiration from an 1870 novel by Austrian Ibsen contemporary Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.) And her Nora, though giggly, vain, hedonistic and sheltered, is anything but silly.

What she is instead is bubbling over with life — the polar opposite of widowed friend Kristine Linde, who describes herself as "empty" — and kibitzing on the brink of hysteria. Confidingly chatting with Kristine, she can’t stop her crossed leg from bouncing or her giggle from erupting at odd places. Of course, once she comprehends the trouble she’s in, her giggle grows more grotesque — as do her coquettish efforts to manipulate her husband. The scene in which Nora frantically tries to prolong their stress-free relations, asking Torvald to take charge of a rehearsal for the "tarantella" with which he intends to show her off at a party the next night, is heartbreaking. Moving with increasing frenzy and jerkiness, Syglowski’s Nora is like an organ grinder’s monkey with taskmaster Torvald doing the cranking.

Director Bensussen has said she looked to cast a younger, sexier Nora and Torvald than is customary. (Evidently it works for artistic director Peter DuBois, who inquires in the press materials: "Is it hot in this theatre or is it just this cast?") That the Helmers are portrayed in the production as an interracial couple is immaterial. Nonetheless, its African-American Torvald, the handsome Sekou Laidlow, is less priggish and more charismatic than most. His rage, however sanctimonious, is pretty scary. And given that he never fully comprehends the rift in his paternalistic zeitgeist, it’s hard not to pity his bewilderment when his “Nora-bird” flies the coop.

Nora Helmer (played by Andrea Syglowski) with her children in "A Doll's House." (Courtesy T. Charles Erikson/Huntington Theatre Company)
Nora Helmer (played by Andrea Syglowski) with her children in "A Doll's House." (Courtesy T. Charles Erikson/Huntington Theatre Company)

For all its edificial symbolism, the production is decently, naturalistically acted (and I love that the Helmer children, flying rambunctiously up the aisle with their old-fashioned Christmas loot, are on hand). Even the melodramatically conceived Krogstad, with his despoiled reputation and the hot goods on Nora, is imbued with a raw, humane desperation by Huntington mainstay Nael Nacer.

Marinda Anderson is a stalwart if unexciting Mrs. Linde. Jeremy Webb, as moribund family friend Dr. Rank, flirts with equal suavity with death and Nora (who, in Syglowski’s reading, takes knowing advantage). Adrianne Krstansky hovers ominously as gentle Helmer governess Anne-Marie, and Lizzie Milanovich imbues servant Helene with some personality.

Lavery’s terse yet urgent translation is especially effective at the end, when Syglowski’s Nora replaces her “masquerade costume” (which one?) with modern dress, shrugs off her uncomprehending spouse, and heads for that looming door. The quiet yet brimming one-on-one between a finally calm Nora and backpedaling Torvald, for the first time sacrificing their bedroom-driven household charade to serious conversation, aptly demonstrates that breaking up, even when necessary, is hard to do.

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Carolyn Clay Theater Critic
Carolyn Clay, a theater critic for The ARTery, was for many years theater editor and chief drama critic for the Boston Phoenix.

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