A Doll’s House

Miriam Lee (l) as Nora and Tyrone Phillips (r). Photo by Joe Mazza.

By Henrik Ibsen

Directed and Adapted by Michael Halberstam

Produced by Definition Theatre Company, Chicago

Lean Doll’s House Zeroes in on Conflict

Michael Halberstam’s adaptation of A Doll’s House, now being performed by the young Definition Theatre Company, is a rapid-fire abridged version of Ibsen’s classic 1879 drama. The good news about the piece, which was based on a public domain translation, is that it eliminates many of the extraneous and heavy-handed lines from what was only Ibsen’s second prose play. The downside is that what remains is still a dated translation. However, the actors of Definition (which was created by alumni of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s department of theatre who graduated the year before I did) make the story compelling, and generally transform the faux-naturalistic dialogue into a stylized method of speaking which supports, rather than hinders, the emotional development of the characters. And although the production is set in the time of the play’s writing, the story remains as current as ever.

Nora Helmer (Miriam Lee) is a middle-class housewife whose husband, Torvald (Tyrone Phillips), has recently gotten a major promotion at the town’s main bank. Though he often complains she asks him for too much money, she charms him with her childish adoration and playfulness. Around Christmas, Nora’s friend Kristine Linde (Krystal Mosley) arrives on her doorstep, hoping Nora can influence her husband to secure her a position at the bank. Mrs. Linde confesses she married her husband for his money, but he died, leaving her with children and an ailing mother, so she joined the workforce. Now that her mother is dead and her children are grown-up, Mrs. Linde feels lonely, but still wants to earn her own living. Nora uses her influence, but is hurt by Mrs. Linde’s insinuation that, as a house-wife, she has no understanding of real responsibility or finances.

Nora reveals that in fact, early in their marriage Torvald was extremely sick, and a doctor advised her to take him somewhere warmer and brighter than Norway. Afraid of upsetting him by revealing the truth of his condition, or perhaps fearing that he would refuse treatment, Nora persuaded Torvald to take her with him to the Mediterranean by begging for an extended vacation. To finance their trip, Nora obtained a loan without Torvald’s knowledge with her father as a co-signer. She’s been paying it off secretly to a bank employee named Krogstad (Chris Sheard) ever since, which is partly why Torvald sees her as a spendthrift. But now a crises has developed. Krogstad is known to have gotten away with forgery, and Torvald took hiring Mrs. Linde as an opportunity to dismiss him. Desperate, Krogstad realizes that Nora forged her deceased father’s name on the loan, and blackmails her into intervening with Torvald on his behalf. Knowing that Krogstad will not stop at getting his old position back, but sure Torvald will take the blame for her, Nora resolves to kill herself as a heroic, redemptive gesture. It doesn’t go quite as she planned.

Moon Jung Kim’s set design, with its Persian carpet, and Kristy Leigh Hall’s costumes, including Nora’s gowns, are as beautiful as they are indicative of the Helmers’ conservative, bourgeois household. But the company’s multiracial composition make the period design, and mounting of this play at all, a bold choice. All of Ibsen’s plays are about an individual whose vital psychological needs are contrary to the norms of a capricious and stifling society, balanced against the individual’s highly suspect ideals. However, A Doll’s House is the play in which Ibsen criticized distinctly middle-class European behavioral expectations. I thought an Asian Nora and a black Torvald made that critique more apparent and didn’t find it distracting.

Certainly I think Lee’s acting is worthy of the role. The trick with Nora is to decide how much she really understands and how much she is ignorant of. This Nora is not stupid, but clearly did not appreciate the consequences of her forgery. Lee knows how to use silence to build tension, and injects just the right amount of thoughtlessness into Nora’s attitude towards others and confusion into her crises. Yaw Agyeman’s Dr. Ranke is wry and sarcastic. As the manifestation of unfair, dirty reality, his manner is somewhat abrasive despite his normally good intentions. Melodramatic Krogstads went out of style long ago, and Sheard’s is anxious and twitchy in a way that makes the resolution of his relationship with Mrs. Linde plausible instead of bizarre. He’s a sympathetic character, making his conflict with Torvald more painful. Torvald has the clumsiest expository lines, but this script also removed his most outrageously overbearing statements, leaving Phillips to play him with a constant low-key pomposity.

The most notable cut is Nora’s famous tarantella, a dance meant to purge poison. Perhaps this was done to make the play seem more naturalistic; the lines about forgers spreading poison through the air are retained but not emphasized particularly more than any of the other disasters that fall upon Nora in rapid succession. Originally Nora’s expression of this fear she was poisoning her children ended the first act, but Halberstam’s version has no intermission. Naturalism came to the theatre slowly, and nineteenth century authors’ attempts to depict people scientifically seem fantastical to us today. Toning down this aspect in favor of more direct conflict between the characters over their specific actions is not at all a bad choice, just different. It makes the play more accessible and relevant to modern struggles over managing a household, although it also makes Dr. Ranke’s presence somewhat thematically curious. But I’m getting esoteric. I think fans of A Doll’s House will enjoy this version, and the simplifications also make it a good introduction for Ibsen fans in the making.


Jacob Davi

Reviewed April 9, 2015

For more information, see A Doll’s House’s page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W Division Street, Chicago. Tickets are $25; to order, visit Plays on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 4:00 pm through May 3. Running time is ninety minutes with no intermission.