Waiting for Miracles
Ibsen is a lot like pizza. It's hard to mess up, and even when it's just okay, it's still pretty awesome.
The Vagabond Players' production of "A Doll's House," playwright Henrik Ibsen's dramatic commentary on middle class life and women's rights in the 19th century might not be Broadway caliber, but it served quite nicely, if the audience reaction was any indication.
Karina Ferry stars as Nora Helmer, wife of the newly minted bank director Torvald (Michael Leicht), a woman who is a bit of an actress herself. Nora plays the helpless, silly-minded "skylark" her chauvinist husband prefers while in reality, she is far more mature and wise to the world's ways than she lets on. Nora eventually confides in her friend, Kristine (Jennifer Skarzinksi), herself a victim of the mores and traditions of the times.
To pay for her husband's convalescence, Nora secures a loan from Krogstad (Eric C. Stein), a business subordinate of Torvald's, forging her father's signature as a woman cannot undertake a financial transaction without a male (husband or father)'s consent. Strike one against the Victorian age.
While Krogstad initially comes across as your generic blackmailing villain, Stein plays him as a man done wrong, rejected by the woman he loved, spurned by society for the same "rash" mistake Nora has perpetrated, and as a father desperate to provide for himself and his children. He is not without sin, but nor is he simply a "black hat" (though he wears one...as do most of the men in the play; kudos to costumer Victoria Kuhns for her designs, though Torvald's curling suitjacket lapels could use a bit of ironing!)
In fact, few are actually as they seem in Ibsen's play. Nora is smart enough to fool her husband for eight years into believing she's nothing more than a frivolous, macaroon-sneaking s "doll." Family friend Dr. Rank (Gregory Jericho) seems a detached, philosophical sort who enjoys chatting up Torvald when in reality, it's for a far different reason he visits the Helmer household on a daily basis. And Kristine rejects Krogstad, not because she does not love him, but because she must marry another who has the finances to care for her family. "Women just didn't have the opportunities they have today," my play companion observed. Strike two.
Krogstad leaves Torvald a letter that reveals Nora's crime and so Nora's hopes for a miracle begins...a miracle that Torvald won't read the letter...a miracle that Krogstad will have a change of heart and take it back...a miracle that once Torvald reads the letter, he will say, what does it matter, my reputation is nothing compared to my love to you.
But it is an era when "no man will sacrifice his honor for love," as Torvald declares: Strike three. Nora sees her husband truly for the first time as he sees Nora for the independent, mind-strong, courageous individual she is. But Torvald is only the product of his era. Even he confesses that he would hope for a change in himself if it would mean not losing Nora. Can he change? Can Nora find her true self in a time when women were to be nothing but "pretty things"? The curtain falls without these questions being answered. Nora says she no longer believes in miracles. She has come to believe in herself. The next act must star the audience to bring about the changes so needed in a society whose shortcomings Ibsen has so masterfully detailed in what is perhaps his greatest work.
A three-hour play translated from Norwegian sounds like a recipe for chair-fidgeting and yawns, but Ibsen's dialogue is so clever and intriguing, and the acting so apt, the time flies by. Despite the serious nature of this play, there is much comedic as well; Torvald's explanation of why embroidery is preferable to knitting had the audience roaring.
Opening night jitters might explain why nearly every actor stepped on another's lines or swallowed a snippet of dialogue or two-- enough times to be noticeable, but not so much as to ruin the illusion of what was occurring on stage. There was one particularly comic moment when Nora, performing a dance, begins la-la-la-laing herself when Torvald's phonograph failed to play. The actors' powers of improvisation, however, saved the moment, for the most part, and the audience seemed pleased with the result.
The audience was also particularly taken with a moment when the maid, Helene (Crystal Sewell), in retreating from the stage during a particularly intense emotional moment, jarred the door on her way out of the parlor, being more mindful of her master and lady than the exit. If it was a mistake, it was an extremely timely and appropriate one.
Sewell as Helene and Linda Sellner as the nanny, Anne-Marie, do well in small and for the most part, thankless roles, despite fairly limited onstage experience. Aidan Hewett as Nora's young son, Ivar, and Avia Trent as daughter Emmy portray the right amount of "cuteness," so appropriate to an era when children were dolls of a different sort, seen but not heard.
Directed by Sherrionne Brown, "A Doll's House" continues is run at The Vagabond Players theater at 806 South Broadway in Baltimore's Fells Point, now through Sept. 26th. Showtimes are 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $15; $13 for seniors and students. For reservations and subscription information, call 410-563-9135 or visit www.vagabondplayers.org.