Dramatist Theresa Rebeck’s updated version of Ibsen’s play strengthens one key aspect of A Doll’s House—its picture of savage incomprehension between man and woman, which drives Ibsen’s call for independence and self-respect in a society that rewards complacency, greed, and childish role-playing.
DollHouse by Theresa Rebeck. Based on A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen. Directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary. Staged by New Repertory Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA, through March 20.
By Bill Marx
Was Henrik Ibsen a feminist? Progressive women thought so, but in a notorious speech to a feminist organization, Ibsen insisted that he was neither a member of a political movement nor a proponent of women’s rights. A Doll’s House expounds anarchistic individualism, he claimed, not just female liberation. Although feminists still hailed Ibsen as a champion for the cause, the standard academic critical line saw Nora as Everyman. That understanding was taken to its visionary extreme at the climax of the 2003 Mabou Mines production, in which, before Nora leaves husband and children, she whips off her wig to reveal a bald head. Nora marches into the future as an androgynous figure, perhaps free to choose her gender as well as reinvent herself.
I was a stubborn proponent of the “rises above feminism” party until I read Joan Templeton’s superb 1997 study Ibsen’s Women, which makes a strong case that the playwright was an active proponent of feminism, a veteran political polemicist whose plays undoubtedly further his liberal vision of justice for oppressed groups in society, particularly women. In 1885, six years after Nora slams the door on kids and marriage in A Doll’s House, Ibsen spoke to a workers procession: “The transformation of social conditions which is now being undertaken in Europe is very largely concerned with the future status of workers and women. That is what I am hoping and waiting for, that is what I shall work for, all I can.” Part of that work was A Doll’s House.
Of course, Ibsen was too brilliant a dramatist, too much of a believer in the divine freedom of the artist, to churn out didactic drama: there is a fascinating tension in the play between female and human liberation. After all, Nora and her husband are both dolls in the same culturally encouraged toy house—Nora’s eyes are opened, and she is the first to leave the plastic walls. Torvald will either accept the same challenge or remain a man-child.
Theresa Rebeck’s modernized script, which sets it in contemporary Connecticut and turns Nora’s husband, Evan, into a big time banker, ends up narrowing the scope of Ibsen’s ending. Here hubby isn’t reduced to a state of helplessness at the prospect of Nora’s exit but becomes an arrogant and cornered animal who assumes he can demean his wife back into line after trouble is averted. (In many ways, Evan treats Nora as a trophy wife who should look pretty and see and do no evil.) Still though the final confrontation is thinned out, as are other aspects of Ibsen’s original, this version still compels as drama, especially when New Rep performers Will Layman as Evan and Sarah Newhouse as Nora are slugging it out with passionate panache.
In a curious way, Rebeck is more Shavian than Ibsenite in her approach; she is not afraid to give Evan some stinging arguments as he tries to undercut Nora’s decision to leave. Torvald didn’t have a clue about what Nora could do as a free woman—over a century later Evan paints a sardonic picture of dead end jobs and loneliness. This updated version of the battle royal strengthens one key aspect of Ibsen’s drama— its picture of savage incomprehension between man and woman, its call for independence and self-respect in a society that rewards complacency, greed, and childish role-playing.
The plot pretty much remains the same: Rebeck’s Nora, settled in her designer mansion, embezzles from her father’s firm to help Evan recover from heart trouble by way of a long trip to healthier climes. They don’t have the money for the prolonged vacation and he denies his weaknesses, so Nora lies to him about where the money came from (you would think a banker might be more persnickety about money). The man who helped Nora take and then return the funds has been caught and now, out of prison, wants Nora to help him secure a position with Evan’s bank or he will implicate her in the crime.
Nora does her best to fend off the truth—Rebeck is effective at suggesting how Nora’s life has always been about juggling lies and excuses for the sake of her man. It is when Evan and she face the prospect of public scandal that future co-habitation becomes a matter of character rather than throwing money or status at the problem.
Rebeck takes sensitive care with the embezzler, Neil Fitzpatrick, who becomes, in Gabreil Kuttner’s agile performance, a sympathetic blackmailer who loves his kids. The groundwork helps set up his willingness to listen to Christine (Jennie Israel), Nora’s down-and-out friend, who helps him realize that his actions are rooted in anger (perhaps in class antagonism as well, why shouldn’t the rich be responsible for their crimes?) than need.
But the adapter and director Bridget Kathleen O’Leary do not have as strong a handle on the figure of Damien Rank, a physician friend of Evan’s who has long been in love with Nora. He reveals to her that he has not long to live, hoping this might win her over, if only for a moment. He is sadly aware of a life spent in game-playing and wasted longing, in the same way Nora becomes aware of her dissolute existence, though she has the will and the time to do something about it. Diego Arciniegas’s Damien comes off as enervated and moody rather than a desperate man trying to repress self-loathing.
At the center of the production are two very savvy and satisfying performances. Lyman expertly exudes Evan’s avuncular smarminess, a manipulative likability nurtured by the corporate world that can quickly become sadistic and overbearing. It would be nice to see more flickers of self-recognition from Whitehouse’s Nora as the walls close in, but the actress delivers at the end, her surprise at her husband’s moral banality slowly turning into insight into her own cowardice and then determination to make something of herself.
Yet the imaginative limits of this DollHouse become clear when Nora, admitting that Evan will most likely marry again, tells him that he should think about staying single until she comes back—the new Nora will be worth waiting for. There is something about Nora’s door slam in A Doll’s House that suggests that she could care less what Torvald thinks or will think—she ain’t never coming back.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.