Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 drama ”A Doll’s House” famously culminates in the door slam heard round the world. The play’s final moment, when disillusioned wife and mother Nora Helmer leaves her family behind to experience the world on her own terms, was such an affront to 19th-century mores that it created a sensation across Europe.
Of course, it’s not always so easy for 21st-century audiences to grasp the nuances of Scandinavian society of nearly 150 years ago, where married women were legally under their husbands’ rule, and even spoken language itself contained cues as to the relative social standing of its speakers.
When: Through Mar. 22
Where: Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St.
Tickets: $43 – $46
Run time: 2 hours 15 minutes, with one intermission
Perhaps that’s why so many contemporary playwrights like to take Ibsen’s script as a starting point for spinoffs or modern resettings. Lucas Hnath’s thought-experiment “sequel” “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” which imagined Nora returning to the scene of the crime, has been one of the most produced plays across the country since its 2017 Broadway debut (Steppenwolf Theatre Company staged it this time last year). Rebecca Gilman turned Nora’s well-appointed Nordic home into a Lincoln Park condo for her “Dollhouse,” which premiered at the Goodman in 2005. Gilman’s fellow Chicago writer Calamity West set her 2014 riff “The Doll’s House Project” in 1989 New York, as the Berlin Wall was falling.
There are no such flourishes in the new production of “A Doll’s House” now on stage at Raven Theatre. This revival, directed by Lauren Shouse, uses an adaptation by Anne-Charlotte Hanes Harvey and Kirsten Brandt that was first staged at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in 2013. The writers worked from a new translation by Harvey, a retired professor at San Diego State University whose scholarship focused on Ibsen and his contemporary, August Strindberg.
While Harvey and Brandt have clearly taken great care with their work — their script includes nearly ten pages of footnotes regarding word choices, coloration, syntax and etymological context — it’s hard to say if it earns the designation of “adaptation.” Occasional touches of updated English are carefully considered and lend some extra oomph, perhaps, to Nora’s relationship to modern feminism. Structurally and thematically, though, this version isn’t significantly divergent from the 1950s-era translation I had on my bookshelf at home.
That story is one of a songbird who comes to see just how tightly she’s caged. “Songbird” is one of several diminishing pet names bestowed upon Nora (Amira Danan) by her husband Torvald (Gage Wallace); he also refers to her as his “squirrel” and his “lark” — emphasis on the his. At the top of the play, Nora is celebrating Torvald’s promotion to bank director, which she believes will bring an end to years of scraping by. When we first meet her husband, Torvald frets over her spending on Christmas presents for their children, reminds Nora that he’s asked her to stay away from sweets, parcels out a few bills of household cash like he’s giving Nora her allowance, and chastises her for even mentioning the idea of borrowing a little money until his first paycheck arrives in three months.
What Torvald doesn’t know is that Nora has already borrowed a significant amount of money, to pay for the treatment that saved Torvald’s life some years back. (Funny how doctors these days never seem to prescribe “a year’s rest in the south of Europe” to cure what ails you.) What’s more, Nora broke the law by obtaining a loan without her husband’s authorization; what’s worse, she covered it up by having her dying father guarantee the debt — and forged her father’s signature on the promissory note.
Yet even before that long-held fiction is threatened by the arrival of two figures from Nora’s past, her childhood friend Kristine (Shadana Patterson) and the menacing Krogstad (Nelson Rodriguez), you can sense in Danan’s manically chipper Nora the labor of convincing the world, and especially herself, that everything is peachy-keen and she isn’t chafing against the constraints of this domestic life.
Wallace finds an effectively casual smarminess in Torvald’s infantilizing proclamations. You buy that he thinks of Nora as his most prized possession, but he isn’t fully conscious of the fact that he doesn’t see her as an equal until Nora has her own quiet breakthrough, telling him calmly that she’s never really been happy — “only cheerful.”
Izumi Inaba’s sharp costumes are mostly monochrome: blacks and whites and shades of gray. But I thought I saw some subtle colors seeping into Nora’s wardrobe in those closing moments, before she steps out the door to finally see the world through her own eyes.
Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.