By Henrik Ibsen
Directed by Chris Maher
Produced by Infamous Commonwealth Theatre
At the Greenhouse Theater Center
Victorian tale of one woman’s liberation.
Probably Ibsen’s most famous play, A Doll’s House is a domestic story – which may seem the norm today, but was the exception when it was written in 1879. One of the earliest realist plays, and some say the first feminist play, Ibsen tells the story of Mrs. Nora Helmer (this time glowingly portrayed by Kate Cares), a woman who finds herself ever-more trapped by the societal norms and laws of the Victorian Era.
I should say, though I have made much of its Victorian nature, director Chris Maher decided to set this production in 1962 New York, just as the second wave of feminism was really catching fire, with Simone de Beauvoir at the helm; a decision that, though it does seem occasionally too oppressive to be only 47 years ago, largely works.
Nora’s husband, Torvald Helmer (Stephen Dunn, in a strong showing), has recently been made manager of a bank, which comes with a substantial raise. Nora, his lark, his squirrel, as he affectionately (and possessively) calls her, is naturally quite excited: she sees all of her cares washing away with the first quarter’s earnings. However, what Torvald doesn’t realize is just why she is so excited, something Nora confides in an old school friend, Kristine Linde (Genevieve Thompson), who shows up to ask for work from the more well-off girl. Namely, that Nora is in debt. When they were first married, Nora’s father was very ill, and Torvald worked himself near to death; the doctors said that they had to take a trip to Europe in order to save him, but they couldn’t afford it and Torvald would hear nothing of borrowing money. So she found a way. Telling her husband that her father gave her the money, Nora in fact found a lender, and has been paying off her loan ever since – about eight years. It is her point of pride that she “saved her husband’s life” without his knowing how.
Add to this Mark Shallow in a wonderful performance as the jocund yet moribund Doctor Rank, the family confidant, and Josh Atkins as a picture-perfect Nils Krogstad, a shamed bank worker who has some unclear connection with Nora, and the intrigue is fully set.
As Nora’s life spins ever-more precariously out of control, her basic moral fiber forces her to make painful decisions as society looks down on her for what she’s done and we look down on it for judging her so harshly. Although her decisions were her own, and what’s happening to her is, in the strictest sense, only her fault, she made all the decisions we would want her to make, even as every choice brings her closer to a clash with her socialite husband, Torvald.
Barbara Roeder Harris as the avuncular nanny, and Amanda Roeder as the housekeeper Helene, in her first post-graduate production, round out this sturdy cast. The decision to not include the children as characters on stage in this production makes the dénouement only slightly less heart-wrenching; this is a solid production that will only get stronger as the run continues – and with tickets only $15-20, it makes for an excellent and affordable afternoon or evening.
At the Greenhouse Theatre Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, IL, call 773-404-7336, tickets $20, $15 for industry/Seniors/students, Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3 pm, running time is 2 hours with intermission, through February 27, 2011