BWW Review: Andrea Syglowski Holds the Keys to A DOLL'S HOUSE
A Doll's House
Written by Henrik Ibsen, An Adaptation by Bryony Lavery, Directed by Melia Bensussen; Scenic Design, James Noone; Costume Design, Michael Krass; Lighting Design, Dan Kotlowitz; Sound Design & Original Music, Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen; Production Stage Manager, Emily F. McMullen; Stage Manager, Jeremiah Mullane
CAST: Andrea Syglowski, Sekou Laidlow, Marinda Anderson, Adrianne Krstansky, Jeremy Webb, Nael Nacer, Lizzie Milanovich, Kinsaed Damaine James, Zoë Adams Martin, Elise Rose Walker, Gavin Daniel Walker
Bryony Lavery is not the first, and will probably not be the last, to write a modernized adaptation of A Doll's House, Henrik Ibsen's classic drama examining the trials and tribulations of human relationships. Hewing closely to the structure of the original play, premiered in Copenhagen in 1879, Lavery nevertheless freshens the dialogue with accessible language and a contemporary sensibility, while Director Melia Bensussen shakes things up with a youthful interracial couple as Nora and Torvald Helmer at the Huntington Theatre Company in the first U.S. professional production of this translation. Even as times and customs have changed since the 19th century, the ideas about marriage and gender roles that are reflected in Ibsen's play are not so far removed from our range of experiences in 2017, reminding us that we still have a lot of work to do.
Speaking of which, this House needs work to achieve a more even quality and greater connection between its components. At present, Andrea Syglowski (Nora) is far and away the highlight with a formidable and breathless interpretation. While she comes across as a little too manic for my taste, she lets us see all of Nora's internal mechanisms grinding away and distinctly varies her behavior with each of her scene partners. She has the most challenging story arc as Nora transitions from being a possession or appendage of her husband at the start to establishing her own identity as a human being, not just a female. It is no surprise to get this level of performance from Syglowski who wowed Huntington audiences in Venus in Fur (2014) and took home both an Elliot Norton Award and the IRNE Award for Best Actress in the role.
The actor playing Nora's husband Torvald is faced with a sticky wicket; he is a far less sympathetic character, at least from a woman's perspective, yet he is not meant to be a villain. Sekou Laidlow combines righteousness, rigidity, and a smattering of sensual playfulness, but one never really gets the feeling that Nora actually likes him or his attentions. His paternalism and authority come across more like a controlling spousal abuser than merely as a man of his time who expects to be seen and respected as the head of the household. However, when Torvald's moment of truth arrives, Laidlow's explosive reaction is impressive, as is his sudden reversal, and he garners sympathy in the final scene.
The supporting characters of Mrs. Linde (Marinda Anderson), Krogstad (Nael Nacer), and Dr. Rank (Jeremy Webb) are all solidly played. Anderson displays Linde's world-weariness mixed with a few granules of hope that she can find a motivation to carry on. As Nora's blackmailer, Nacer's tightly-coilEd Mannerisms scream desperation and he brings welcome sparks to the stage. Despite his character's melancholy, Webb makes Rank appear as if he hasn't a care in the world. In fact, he may be the most contented of the bunch, perhaps because he has nothing to lose. Adrianne Krstansky (Anne-Marie) is the long-time nanny who is a comfort to Nora, but is offstage more than on. She ferries the children (Kinsaed Damaine James and Zoë Adams Martin at this performance - both adorable) in and out for brief encounters with their mother. Lizzie Milanovich is polite and subservient as the maid Helene.
One of the stars of the show is James Noone's scenic design of a structure that suggests a dollhouse (and plays an important role in the denouement of the drama). The vaulted-ceilinged living room has minimal furniture and features an open floor plan with no doors, just large cutout spaces that lead to the wings and the outdoors. The backdrop is painted with hot reds and oranges and cool blues, influenced by the color palette of artist Edvard Munch, and its hues transform from night to day under the varied lighting designed by Dan Kotlowitz. Costume designer Michael Krass dresses the characters in contemporary style for the most part; Dr. Rank and Anne-Marie look a bit more last century. Sound design and evocative original music are by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen.
Ibsen's story remains compelling well over a century after he wrote it. Its themes of marriage, money, and gender are timeless, and each generation represented in the audience can absorb the play through their own filter. Bensussen's choice to cast a youthful pair of actors shifts the emphasis to the pressures of starting out in life and the weighty decisions they face when their marriage is still relatively new. Nora and Torvald live the roles assigned to them by society, but learn the hard lesson that they cannot play house forever.