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CSC's "Doll's House": Don't Toy with Nora!

SHOW INFORMATION: A Doll's House runs through March 2: Fridays and Saturdays at 8PM, Sundays at 2PM.  Tickets $25/General, $15 Seniors/Students 21 and under.  Go to www.chesapeakeshakespeare.com or 1-866-811-4111 for ticket reservations and more information. 

◊◊◊◊ out of five. 2 hours, 40 minutes, including intermission.  Adult situations. 

Henrik Ibsen caused quite a stir with his late nineteenth century play, A Doll's House.  Not only did the playwright usher in the use of modern, realistic language in plays, but he dared to end his play with no less than a revolutionary ending – an unhappy woman leaves her husband and family to "find herself."  Yes, those final moments caused demonstrations, refusals by actors to perform the play as written, and probably helped with the international women's movement.  (Wouldn't it be great if theatre had that kind of power again?)  Such a classic is a perfect fit for the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, which presents such "Classics in the Box" each winter at its space at Howard County's Center for the Arts.  Director Kevin Costa makes an impassioned, if measurably hyperbolic pre-curtain speech about the timelessness of the play (this production uses a newer translation by Paul Walsh) and how it "speaks to those of us who feel we are living a [pre-determined] life."  The play does touch upon such issues as "being kept," spousal abuse, and the role of women in society.  Regardless of how meaningful the play remains, it is a classic, and presented here, is a superbly staged and acted evening of entertaining theatre.

A Doll's House is the story of Nora Helmer and her picture perfect marriage to Torvald, their two child and a nanny family, and their friends, a Dr. Rank and Kristine Linde.  Dr. Rank, a lifelong friend of Torvald's visits daily, and suffers from a disease that will kill eventually kill him, but he is a happy man, thankful to be alive and to see Nora every day.  Kristine, a childhood friend of Nora's is recently returned to town after losing a husband, and with two sons taking care of themselves.  The nanny, who had a child herself but gave her up for adoption to pursue the "opportunities" of nannydom, was nanny to Nora and is so now to Nora's little ones.  Clearly, we have women and men here representing different things:  women are happily married mothers, widows free only because their children have gone, and unwed mothers given the "opportunity" to give up their children and be servants.  The men are successful, morally upright, and only mildly plagued by their pasts – Dr. Rank is a respected, wealthy man despite the fact that he has this disease because his parentage involved sexually transmitted disease – and yet, as the play unfolds, a woman's indiscretions, no matter how honorable the intention, are met with banishment and hate.  The third man, Nils, offers the catalyst for all of the conflict and drama – he is known as a dishonorable man for something he did in the past, and is slowly working his way back up the societal ladder.  It turns out, Torvald, now in a position of power, is going to show this dishonorable man the door, but is ignorant to the fact that Nils has a powerful secret to hold against his wife.

If all of this sounds a bit soap opera-ish, by today's standards it is, but I don't necessarily mean this in a bad way.  No, in fact, the slight bent toward melodrama (both in the script and in the direction of this production) heightens the situation enough to allow the audience to remove itself from it as far as any personal responsibility goes and to allow it to simply observe, taking from it lessons learned.  The acting style and direction are very heightened, but carefully engineered so as not to go overboard.  The result is characters we care about, an antiquated plot we can buy into and an absorbing few hours of theatre.

Staged with seats immediately adjacent to the set on three sides (much like Broadway's Spring Awakening) the audience is clearly being set up to observe – to peer into – the carefully orchestrated lives of the characters.  The doll/dollhouse metaphor of the title pervades the production, far beyond the literal, which has husband treating wife like a toy.  The furnishings of Dan O'Brien's spare, but elegant, setting are definitely like life sized versions of dollhouse Victorian miniatures, as are the doors, props and even the small Christmas tree.  Kristina Lambdin's lush, detailed costumes also suggest doll's clothing, perfectly pressed, never mussed, and as they don't change clothes over the three day period of the play (except party garb for a few), Miss Lambdin subtly suggests that these people are dolls – the kind with one outfit and simple accessories.  Dr. Costa's staging makes full use of the space, with the halls and rear door of the space utilized to full effect, so that we often hear who is coming, and more significantly, going.  On stage, there is an air of precision and purpose to each and every movement, again suggesting a slightly heightened reality, as if the characters are being manipulated like toys.  Whether that was the director's specific choice, I don't know, but it is a fitting explanation for the manner in which the show is staged, and it really works.

Across the board, the company of actors is excellent.  As the children, Brennan Johnson and Allie Hough are sweet and cute – exactly what the script calls for.  Their charm and innocence work well in the mix of the plot and acting.  Similarly, Jan Boulet as the Nanny/Maid does credible work, exuding a warmth and clear sense of duty.  A small role, Ms. Boulet makes a good impression, particularly as she remembers the sacrifice she made in giving up her own child.

Charlie Mitchell, as Dr. Rank, is blustery and good-natured, kind of loud when up against his friend, Torvald.  In short, he is just what you'd expect from a man's man – buddy buddy.  It is when he shares some genuine emotion and quiet time with Nora that Mr. Mitchell is at his best, though.  The love in his eyes is sweet, the fear in his eyes at his impending death is touching, and the resolve in his eyes in his final scene gives the entire play a real sense of strength.  His supporting role mirrors the appearance versus reality theme that pervades the script, and Mr. Mitchell goes far with that point to the benefit of all.

It is difficult to play the "bad guy" in a play full of "practically perfect" people, especially when what has allegedly made the character "bad" is, by today's standards, almost trivial, if still not legal.  Still, the role of Nils, undertaken by Scott Alan Small flourishes in the actor's care.  He is at once a seething, spiteful man, angry at the world and sorry for himself.  But, as the layers are peeled away each time Mr. Small takes the stage, you almost find yourself rooting for the guy to succeed.  He really isn't just what he seems to be.  That Mr. Small has found ways to "mix it up" and avoid an easier one dimensional portrayal makes what ultimately happens to Nils appropriate and satisfying.

Kathryn Kelly's take on Kristine comes across as a bit abrupt, even mannish at first.  She is a no nonsense woman, at on her own, but still mindful of her place.  That colder side to the character really warms, though, as you begin to realize that she is, in many ways, the antithesis of Nora, who comes on strong from the start.  And like Mr. Small, Ms. Kelly's slower reveal of the intricacies of her character really pay off in her ultimate scene as well.

Of course, A Doll's House really has no chance of working in this day and age without a good Torvald and Nora.  And in Patrick Kilpatrick and Christina Schlegel's more than capable hands, this show really takes off.  Mr. Kilpatrick has the difficult task of portraying the kind of husband that (at least publicly) does not exist any more.  He is complete master of the house, and his wife and children his prized trophies of a life well-earned.  He is also saddled with most of the play's most laughable lines – he calls Nora by such third person names as The Squirrel, The Songbird, etc. – constantly objectifying his wife, glorifying his manly accomplishments, and lording over her by scolding her like a child and treating her like a pet.  She is the doll to his house, and he likes it that way.  Of course, if you know Mr. Kilpatrick's work at all, you know that he continually finds ways to convey nuances to any role, and here, he is simply glorious at that.  Whether it be by using his larger body to will himself to Nora, or by the sneer on his face when he chastises her, you never doubt that he holds all the strings. And in one sharp, quick glance, we see an instance that shows us that perhaps, unchecked, Nora should actually fear him.  It is a fleeting, but poignant moment.  His final scene is surprisingly touching as he nearly wordlessly crumbles apart, realizing too late that maybe he treated her wrongly.  That look of abject horror is replaced by his tearful pleas for her forgiveness.  A powerful performance, indeed.

But the real star of the evening is Christina Schlegel as Nora, who bursts onto the set from the opening moments and rarely leaves it.  Hers is a completely commanding performance – she is bubbly and effervescent to almost irritation, and her broad smile makes your teeth ache for all of its sweetness, as is her delightful delivery of every single line.  All of that makes the moment when you realize that there is one hell of a strong woman underneath all the smiles, hair curls, and chirpy talk the better.  She captivates the audience from her first line and you probably want to cheer for her in the last, historic moment of the play.  Everything about her performance builds a complete character that other actresses might easily have lost in just trying to convey her outward loveliness.  She and Mr. Kilpatrick have chemistry to spare and like a real husband and wife say as much to each other with a look as with a hundred words.  But CSC has a goldmine in this young woman, who can play it all – comedy, drama, ethos, pathos.  Hers is a performance that, even this early in the year, people will and should talk about.

Nearly a hundred and thirty years ago when this play was first, I am sure many of the lines were greeted by knowing nods from the gentlemen, frustration from their wives, and later, collective gasps, when Nora finally takes charge of her own life.  And while there is no doubt a serious drama going on in front of us here, many of the lines were greeted on opening night by hearty laughs and quiet giggles.  And I am certain that originally, there were not laughs to that extent.  I found myself wondering if the cast was prepared for such a response.  Thankfully, it was quite obvious that the audience's laughter was not at the actors, but at the now ridiculousness of they way husband treats wife. 

It also sprang to my mind that in many ways we were watching a very serious episode of I Love Lucy.  Now before you send me nasty emails, let me explain.  I Love Lucy, like A Doll's House,  is an all-time classic about domestic life between two happy, loving people and their close friends.  I Love Lucy, for all of its comic genius is also a sharp look at the dynamics between husband and wife, and how they appear, versus what really makes them tick.  For like Lucy, Nora is a very intelligent, if naïve wife, totally devoted to her husband and children.  She, like Lucy, knows how important it is to bolster her husband as he climbs the ladder of success, and to, regardless of any arguments or problems, appear happy at all costs.  And like Lucy, Nora must make do with an allowance and a somewhat tight-fisted husband to run a household.  As a consequence, Nora has had to manipulate her money, and in a very dire circumstance contrive to get more.  When Nora/Lucy displeases her husband, she gets a tongue lashing, but then all is forgiven.  In A Doll's House, Nora is confronted with a situation that requires quite a bit of Lucy-esque scheming.  With that as a comparison, it is easier to see the now quaintness of such a dynamic relationship, and thus we laugh.  But just like with I Love Lucy, under it all, in A Doll's House, we cheer for our heroine who puts one over on the man she loves, even as he tries to  control her too much.  That TV program fits roughly in the middle between Ibsen and today, and both remain popular and relevant.   I guess the universality of the play is indeed as the director enthused at his pre-curtain speech.

CSC's production of A Doll's House continues through March 2.  Nora is woman we should all get to know, and this is a fine production to meet her in.  Don't miss it!

PHOTOS courtesy of CSC, by Kitty R Photography.  TOP to BOTTOM: Christina Schlegel as Nora; Christina Schlegel and Scott Alan Small as Nora and Nils; Kathryn Kelly and Christina Schlegel as Kristine and Nora; Christina Schlegel and Patrick Kilpatrick as Nora and Torvald.

 



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