It’s a new decade in Chicago and Ibsen is in the air.
Raven Theatre’s A Doll’s House is the first of three Ibsen plays opening within the next month. Strawdog’s stormy Hedda Gabler will follow shortly on Raven’s heels, and Court’s The Lady From the Sea will bring up the rear with the most ethereal of the Norwegian playwright’s femme-centric family dramas. It must be something in the water.
A long century and a half has passed since A Doll’s House first scandalized European audiences with the “door slam heard around the world.” However, Raven Theatre’s production still manages to feel relevant and timely. Although director Lauren Shouse retains the 19th century setting of Nora’s tale, Shouse re-envisions the meaning of Ibsen’s revolutionary, feminist masterwork for the audience of today. Although her reinterpretation does sacrifice some nuances of Ibsen’s play for the sake of its concept, it remains a promising example of how a classic can be reimagined for contemporary audiences.
At first glance, Nora (Amira Danan) seems to live an idyllic life as Mrs. Helmer. She spends her days entertaining guests in her parlor and doting on her children. Her husband Torvald (Gage Wallace), who has just been promoted to the position of bank director, dotes on her in turn, showering her in presents and pet names; she is his songbird, his little squirrel, his most prized possession. Their life is quite literally picture perfect: Nora’s skillfully-curated outfits (designed by Izumi Inaba) even match the black-and-white parlor set designed by Jacqueline Pernrod.
Nevertheless, it is clear that something is off. Like a trapped songbird, Nora flutters through the parlor, brimming with nervous energy. As the play progresses, the idyllic veneer of the Helmer’s home life falters when a slighted acquaintance threatens to reveal one of Nora’s darkest secrets. As she single-handedly struggles to protect her marriage and her reputation, Nora must continue to wear the increasingly constricting mask of normalcy and play the role of perfect wife to her unsuspecting husband.
Lauren Shouse pushes the bounds of convention with her staging of Ibsen’s classic. She juxtaposes Nora’s idyllic family life and the comfort of her parlor, against the brutality of Nora’s inner turmoil over the impending revelation of her secret. Indeed, the play feels like a psychological thriller: in the few moments when Nora is left alone onstage, the world of her parlor transforms into a hellscape: Eric Backus’s menacing compositions drone and Becca Jefford replaces the invitingly bright parlor lighting with lurid and purple and yellow hues, which play across Nora’s faltering smile.
Amira Danan’s Nora rises to the challenge of her role, both as Ibsen’s most iconic leading lady and the subject of a psychological thriller. She brims with cheery yet nervous energy from the play’s idyllic beginning—energy which grows more frantic and electrifying as the play progresses and she tangles herself even further in her web of deception. Gage Wallace’s Torvald glows with ardent affection for his wife, which only makes his infantilizing treatment of her more nauseating.The two have genuine chemistry—chemistry which renders the play’s famous final scene as heartbreaking as it is uplifting. Shadana Patterson brings warmth and quiet strength to Mrs. Linde. Her earnest confrontation with Krogstad is a happy reprieve from the darkness of the Helmers’s home life.
However, by focusing so much on what Torvald calls Nora’s “childish anxiety,” Raven’s production allows Nora’s psychological state to consume the entire world of the play, flattening Ibsen’s secondary characters and plot lines in its wake. Krogstad becomes a one-note archetypal villain and his eventual redemption, just like Dr. Rank’s terminal diagnosis, seems like a hasty addendum. When Nora is finally released from the thrall of Krogstad’s threat, it feels like a full stop. What she has feared has come to pass. She may breathe easy again in her own parlor. The conflict ends there, but the play continues, and Ibsen’s final, historic scene seems grafted from a different production.
Despite the disjointedness of certain plot lines, Shouse’s A Doll’s House is still a moving retelling of Ibsen’s classic which aptly emphasizes the mental strain of a woman trapped in a role that she can no longer play—a feeling that still resonates into 2020, where sexism plays out far more subtly than in the 19th century. Unlike Ibsen’s women, we can vote, we can get a divorce, and we do not depend on marriage for financial security. However, we still must face a more pervasive sexism: like Nora, today’s women are confronted by people (not to mention political institutions) who seek to check our freedoms ostensibly for our own good. Like Nora, some women must cleave to warped standards—of behavior, of beauty, of opinion—out of self-preservation. Like Nora, women still struggle to carve out a place in male dominated spaces simply because we are not given as many opportunities to try, let alone to succeed.
In 2020, we may have escaped the doll’s house, but outside it is still a man’s world.
Amira Danan (Nora)
Mike Dailey (Dr. Rank)
Carmen Liao (Helene)
Shadana Patterson (Mrs. Linde)
Nelson Rodriguez (Krogstad)
Kelli Walker (Anne-Marie)
Gage Wallace (Helmer)
Translation by Anne-Charlotte Hanes Harvey
Adaptation by Anne-Charlotte Hanes Harvey and Kirsten Brandt
Directed by Lauren Shouse
Jacqueline Penrod (scenic design)
Izumi Inaba (costume design)
Becca Jeffords (lighting design)
Eric Backus (original music and composition)
Caitlin McCarthy (props design)
Ariel Etana Triunfo (choreographer)
Skylar Grieco (assistant director)
Lynn Baber (casting director)
Cole von Glahn (artistic producer)
Bek Lambrecht (technical director)
Liz Gomez (master electrician)
Ian Liberman (wardrobe supervisor)
Eileen Rozycki (scenic artist)
Wilhelm Peters (stage manager)
Julia Toney (assistant stage manager)
Michael Brosilow (photographer)