A Doll’s House – Problematic, But Compelling

Choose your camp. Jamie Lloyd’s bare-bones version of Henrik Ibsen’s play has some up in arms. Lack of set, props (even mime illustrating objects referred to in dialogue), and period costume are the tip of the iceberg. That the company remains onstage throughout is a current trend. What most object to is actors being predominantly glued to their chairs, a trope Lloyd likely uses to indicate straitjacketed lives. I admit to having been wary. Despite reservations about physical restriction, however, I came away sated.

When Ibsen’s character Nora abandoned her husband and children in 1879 so that she might find herself, audiences were scandalized. (The date is projected so that we might be reminded of the original.)  Nineteenth century theater reflected prescribed morals of society. Women were assumed to be frivolous, unthinking creatures best suited to lives as docile wives and mothers. The playwright’s work, though recognized for artistry, was met with qualification or damned by critics.

Okieriete Onaodowan (Krogstad), Jessica Chastain (Nora) Photo by Emilio Madrid

At the British premiere, The Daily Telegraph printed faint praise: “It is quite possible to pass a thoroughly intellectual evening in A Doll’s House without being an immediate convert to Ibsenism.” While The London Times referred to Nora as “an extremely petulant, headstrong, and impracticable young person, whose actions… are not to be reconciled with ordinary experience or the dictates of common sense.” Still relevant, A Doll’s House is Ibsen’s most performed work.

Amy Herzog’s economic adaptation is vivid. When Torvald (Arian Moayed) first calls wife Nora (Jessica Chastain) “baby,” we know we’re not in Kansas anymore, yet the playwright doesn’t pepper text with contemporary reference or eliminate staid social conventions. Her husband’s little “lark” nickname for her has become his little (always the diminishing little) “songbird” without making waves. (She chirps) Restriction of Nora’s sugar intake seems contemporary, but fits his extremism.  Adjustments to syntax are subtle.

Torvald has been promoted to bank manager. Nora enthuses that she can spend money more freely. It’s Christmas. His wife has bought on credit for the children. Torvald asks what she wants for herself. Batting eyelashes and pursing her lips, she coos “cash,” a clue not to profligacy but secret obligations. Chastain is palpably flighty. When Kristine (Jesmille Darbouze) arrives, Nora, oblivious to her old school friend’s widowhood, loneliness and poverty, gushes about her own good fortune. She seems innocent. That the actress convincingly creates a tactless, cosseted child/woman makes her evolution extremely effective.

Arian Moayed (Torvald), Jesmille Darbouze (Christine), Okieriete Onaodowan (Krogstad), Tasha Lawrence (Anne-Marie), Jessica Chastain (Nora) and Michael Patrick Thornton (Dr. Rank)

Both Kristine and Nanny Anne-Marie (Tasha Lawrence) present women who address societal limitations practically. The former’s need to support relatives compelled her to marry money. Widowed, her brothers now independent, she comes to ask Torvald for a job. The character is loyal and grounded. Anne-Marie has given up her out-of-wedlock daughter in order to work for the Helmers, yet doesn’t seem bitter. She too has done what she needs to survive.

Christine observes that Nora’s had an easy life. The heroine objects. “I saved Torvald’s life!” she triumphantly declares. When her husband was ill and advised to change climes, rather than trouble her father, Nora secretly borrowed considerable money from bank lawyer Krogstad (Okieriete Onaodowan) for a stay in Italy. Siphoning from her “own share” of household money, she’s been paying off the debt for years. Torvald who “would be humiliated to think he owes me” must, she says, “live a certain way.” The burden is stressful.

The couple’s best friend, Dr. Rank visits daily. In love with Nora, patient and selfless, he’s become a valued confidante. The character’s role is to disseminate information to the audience, yet he doesn’t feel extraneous. Michael Patrick Thornton’s wheelchair is appropriate to Rank’s fatal disease. The actor is sympathetic and understated.  Integrity and subjugated feeling are manifest with elegance.

Krogstad unexpectedly shows up at the door. (It’s not the first of the month.) He presses Nora to help him keep his job, threatening blackmail should she refuse. It seems that years ago the lawyer “committed an indiscretion,” a criminal act that may have been discovered. In securing her loan, he tells Nora, she’s guilty of the same crime. For the first time, the young wife understands what’s at risk. Torvald fires Krogstad despite her intercession. “I could never work with that man. I feel sick thinking about it,” he says. Nora blanches. The heroine can imagine only three options: to come clean to Torvald assuming he will “do the beautiful thing,” take the blame, and pay; ask Dr. Rank for a loan; or commit suicide.

Torvald hardly notices Nora’s distress, continuing to treat her like a marionette, dressing her as a peasant to perform at a costume party. Performance, when it comes, is executed seated. Nora then falls as if in a fit. Torvald reads a letter from Krogstad. All is revealed. Her husband repudiates her. Christina intercedes with the lawyer. For Nora, however, there’s no going back. “Our home has been nothing but a playroom. I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I was papa’s doll-child; and here the children have been my dolls.” The door metaphorically slams.

Jessica Chastain (Nora)

Physical and spatial issues go both ways. Center rotation of the stage artfully depicts circling memory or imminent danger. Seating characters eight feet apart from one another parses emotional distance. On the other hand, Krogstad’s appeal to Nora is conducted back to back as if “never the twain shall meet.” We lose his expression. Nora’s tarantella and Torvald’s flailing arms of upset are ridiculous confined to chairs.

Arian Moayed’s Torvald is less parental and patronizing than customary. Paralleling Nora’s rationalization that she did nothing wrong to secure his health, her husband righteously carries on in the manner of his era and class. Even efforts to ameliorate come from that mindset. Like every character in this latter day production, Torvald is misguided, rather than at blame. Through no fault of the actor, we miss contrast.

As Nils Krogstad, Okieriete Onaodowan embodies an unwitting villain. That he wants  to spare his children from repercussions of ruined reputation is credible. Correspondence of his crime to Nora’s is also directed to defang actions. Most of the actor’s time onstage, he’s in profile or with his back to us which limits opportunity to visibly emote. Like Moayed, Onaodowan plays the part as directed. Like Torvald, we make allowances.

Jessica Chastain is marvelous. Mercurially she morphs from realization to tearful or full out crying, from heart on her sleeve interaction with her children to cowed obeisance, from frozen panic to courageous exit. Running through her evolution are stop/start moments of confusion and adjustment during which we hold collective breath.

Director Jamie Lloyd’s vision is problematic. Without more movement, the play feels somewhat hamstrung. Still, Herzog’s writing is excellent, the company is skilled and much of what’s restrained enhances drama.

Stark scenic and costume design by Soutra Gilmour are symbiotic to the intentions of this production as is Jon Clark’s lighting and insidious music by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto. Sound design by Ben and Max Ringham makes everything pristine and includes evocative children’s voices.

Photos  Courtesy of A Doll’s House
Opening: Arian Moayed (Torvald), Jessica Chastain (Nora)

A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
A New Version by Amy Herzog
Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Through June 10, 2023
Hudson Theatre 
141 West 44th Street

About Alix Cohen (1510 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.