You can’t quite see the fire from the lake, but there’s heat and light enough for a thousand bra-burnings coming from Writers Theatre, locus of a sleek, 95-minute version of Henrik Ibsen’s protofeminist classic “A Doll’s House.”
Director Lavina Jadhwani tells you everything you need to know about Nora (Cher Alvarez) before she utters a word of Sandra Delgado and Michael Halberstam’s adaptation. This is a woman who is ashamed and afraid to be seen eating cookies.
As for her husband Torvald (Greg Matthew Anderson), he has time to dictate what his wife eats, wears and says, but no time to actually engage with her. It would never even occur to him to do so. Nora is Torvald’s helpless little dove, his own paragon of feminine virtue.
Except of course she’s not. She’s a felon, albeit one who hasn’t been caught yet. Nora’s crime was to borrow money, unlawful for a woman in the play’s 19th century Norway setting. (Before you judge Norway, consider: Until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act passed in 1974, women could be denied loans and credit cards strictly because of their gender — right here in the U.S. of A.) That Nora borrowed to pay for her husband’s health care does not mitigate the egregiousness of her transgression.
But Nora’s “crime” is eight years behind her when “A Doll’s House” begins. She is giddy with happiness. Torvald is well and has gotten a promotion such that he’s able to reward Nora’s every winsome whimper with “heaps” of cash. She’s delighted to be so lavishly pampered and insulated. When her old school friend Christine (Tiffany Renee Johnson) arrives widowed and penniless, Nora’s response is predictably insufferable: She tells her friend to take a vacation. Johnson’s expression could wither the contents of a hothouse as Christine explains that what she needs is work.
In helping her friend, Nora sets in motion her own deliverance from the gilded cage that dictates the terms of her life. Or maybe it’s not deliverance; maybe all that waits for Nora is penury and shunning. Ibsen never said. Writers doesn’t either.
Nora’s fate isn’t necessarily the point here, but her transformation is. She sheds her old life completely, Alvarez making every subtle increment of change apparent and believable. Anderson highlights the danger inherent to Torvald’s sanctimoniousness. In another time and place, he’d be hanging women for witchcraft. Their final scene is a scorcher, every word Alvarez speaks a struck match until Nora has left her privileged life in ashes. Anderson starts with a voice like an ice pick, wielded to inflict irreparable damage. He ends as a little boy caught in a nightmare, yearning for comfort that isn’t coming. It’s riveting.
The supporting cast is equally powerful. Johnson’s Christine has the brains and the brutal pragmatism that comes from a life defined by little privilege and even fewer rights. As Krogstad, a lawyer fallen on hard times, Adam Poss is quite simply mesmerizing. When Krogstad says he’ll stop at nothing to provide for his children, you can sense the barely contained wrath. Poss embodies the extreme destructive potential of the most dangerous kind of man: the kind with nothing left to lose.
As Nora’s maid, Amy J. Carle creates monologues without saying a word. It’s all in the way she polishes a glass, lights a lamp or stoops under the weight of an irrecoverable terrible loss. And as a doctor paying a steep price for the sins of his father, Bradley Grant Smith will break your heart.
Delgado and Halberstam’s adaptation (staged by Definition Theatre in a slightly different version in 2015) is often a bit on the nose. Torvald’s lectures often sound more like right-wing thesis statements than spontaneous dialogue. But then the dialogue hits you with the scathing precision of a master barber manicuring Torvald’s unctuous face — such as when he informs Nora that “no man would sacrifice his honor over love.” Nora responds with eviscerating logic: “Millions of women do it every day.”
Scenic designer Arnel Sancianco centers the drama’s parlor setting on a swan-shaped fainting couch designed to show off delicately swooning ladies rather than provide a place to sit. Izumi Inaba’s costumes speak volumes, from the triple-tiered bustles that bounce and quiver like a litter of puppies on Nora’s ruffled frocks to the too-large suits that emphasize the doctor’s tragic illness.
“A Doll’s House” ends with a whisper, not a slam. But that whisper carries the weight of a thousand doors being battered down, and the wonder of all that lies beyond them.
Catey Sullivan is a Chicago freelance writer.