Ibsen Is Back And He's Hot: Northern Stage

Empty-headed, money-grubbing Nora. You may not expect much of her as you watch her in the opening scene, mincing through the parlor, hiding her forbidden macaroons from her husband Torvald. Playwright Henrik Ibsen will change your mind in short order.

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Northern Stage has opened its 21st season with Ibsen's A Doll's House. The drama quickly unfolds and holds the audience in its grasp until the final scene. Nora (Olivia Gilliatt) and Torvald (Jeffries Thaiss), married with children, are on the cusp of a more lavish lifestyle due to Torvald's new post as a bank manager. He's a bit of a workaholic, disappearing off set into his home office; she shops and hangs Christmas decorations, enjoying tête-a-têtes with an old friend and perpetual visitor, the ailing Dr. Rank (Gordon Clapp). An unexpected arrival of a former schoolmate, Kristine (Hannah Chodos), prompts Nora to reveal the secret that will throw the entire household into legal, moral, and emotional chaos. And the secret simply will not die; it is harbored without mercy by the character of Krogstad (Matthew Cohn), Torvald's employee with a shady past and a hint of history with Kristine.

It's Nora's play. Olivia Gilliatt portrays her in all of her complexity--the former schemer, and today's dreamer of better things to come. She submits to her husband's infantalizing endearments. Gilliatt is at her best as the screws start to turn and she realizes that she will soon be caught in her crime and deceit. Her character is actually in a play within a play, the one we are watching, and the one she puts on for her husband as Torvald's "doll."

Olivia Gilliatt as Nora, Gordon Clapp (background) as Dr. Rank (photo by Rob Strong and used with permission of Northern Stage)

Jeffries Thaiss is a complex Torvald, imperious and smarmy, occasionally playful. His continual references to Nora as his "little sparrow" (with other avian variations) are effectively cringe-inducing. Both his angry meltdown and his bewilderment during the play's final scene are utterly believable. Clapp, whose role as Dr. Rank stands apart from most of the play's action, is credible and sympathetic. Hannah Chodos as Kristine has a subdued role, but executes well her character as Nora's confidant and helpmate. Matthew Cohn's Krogstad is a standout--the quintessential dastardly villain in his private, menacing scenes with Gilliatt, both fueled and tempered by his own desperation. As always with Northern Stage, the costumes and the set--framed in red--tell the story along with the dialogue.

Ibsen wrote A Doll's House in 1879 because, in his words, "a woman cannot be herself in the society of the present day, which is an exclusively masculine society, with laws framed by men and with a judicial system that judges feminine conduct from a masculine point of view." (He was said to have been inspired by a close female friend who was committed to an asylum after she was discovered to have committed forgery. She had asked Ibsen for help in extricating herself from her problems; Ibsen refused, and then went on to write the play.) A Doll's House's has staying power as "a feminist play" with a unparalleled character arc for Nora, but it is also just a well-crafted story. Indeed, the success of A Doll's House, Part 2, in which Nora returns to see Torvald after a 15 year absence, (recently closed on Broadway) is testament to a continued fascination with Ibsen's themes and these particular characters.

And the ending itself? The famous slamming door? Does it hold up after more than a century? It does. Nora's exit speech to her husband could have been written in 1979 rather than 100 years earlier. That Ibsen captured so precisely the essence and the rhetoric of the 1970s second wave of feminism is eerily prescient. As we look back from a 2017 vantage point, some things have changed for women since the 1870s and the 1970s. Some have not. In a culture that still supports inequality between the sexes, Ibsen's hold on modern audiences remains firm.

A Doll's House is playing at The Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction VT until October 29, 2017. Tickets are available on Northern Stage's website or by calling the box office at 802-296-7000.


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Susan B. Apel, writer, ArtfulEdge


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