From Nora's House to Ours

By Wren, Celia | Commonweal, May 9, 1997 | Go to article overview

From Nora's House to Ours


Wren, Celia, Commonweal


`A Doll's House' & `Stonewall Jackson's House'

An armful of Christmas presents launches Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House (Belasco Theatre) on its perfect dramatic arc. During the course of that trajectory, the early domestic coziness turns itself inside out.

The British actress Janet McTeer needs only thirty seconds of nearly breathless bustling around the pile of presents to establish her thrillingly animated portrait of Nora, Ibsen's fabled heroine. McTeer has won rhapsodic praise and an Olivier award for her performance, and no one who sees the splendid London production, which recently opened in New York, will be surprised. This Nora may have to hide her macaroons under the lid of the piano keyboard, out of husband Torvald's sight, but she is flirtatious and self-aware--she often gives little hoots of sly laughter--and she seems to manipulate Torvald (Owen Teale) about as much as he manipulates her.

Everything in the production seems to gain meaning from McTeer's flurrying movements early in the play, when she flings the lid off a box, and throws a blanket over her head to tease her husband. The rigid posture of Teale, who plays Torvald with great dignity and even a certain appeal, provides as much contrast to McTeer's movements as his long black flock coat does to the blond wood of the set.

At the beginning of act 2, when Nora's troubles over a fraudulent signature have begun to haunt her, McTeer's comparative stillness, as she talks aloud to the Christmas tree she is decorating, instantly reveals the character's inner state. Everything is progressing toward the final moments of the play, when Nora and her husband sit down at a table, in a pool of lamplight, to grapple with their marriage's dishonesty for the first and final time.

Ibsen's subtle craftsmanship reveals this dishonesty, and every other type of moral squalor, even when the marriage seems sturdiest. "There can be no freedom or beauty about a home life that depends on borrowing and debt," Torvald says at the beginning of act 1, giving his wife a little lecture about cash flow. With its reminder that a home can be not-free and not-beautiful, this remark suggests that the home is already in peril.

The brightness of this production's spare but comfortable parlor, designed by Deirdre Clancy, seems to emphasize the threat--the pale color of the floorboards and the pastel furnishings suggest that gloom and evil have been unnaturally, and not very successfully, banished. An exaggeratedly receding square of ceiling, suspended above the set, makes the scene just a little stylized, just a touch like a doll's house. The snugness of the space makes it all the more shocking when the self-righteously outraged Teale nearly menaces McTeer right off into the left-hand wing.

But hopeful things can happen in this space, too. In the one scene that does not contain McTeer--the dimly lit opening to act 3--wretchedness turns to hope, as the miserable moneylender Krogstad, played with bitter intensity by Peter Gowen, sits in an armchair picking at his fingernails while his long-lost love (Jan Maxwell) offers an end to loneliness. These two can reach across the gulf that separates them, the play hints, because they have lived, suffered, and lost their illusions out in the real world--had the kind of experience Nora is seeking when she walks out of the house in the play's final scene.

Director Anthony Page has said that he hoped his production avoided reducing Nora's rebellion to "a blueprint for female liberation.

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