Whether Henrik Ibsen intended A Doll’s House to be a proto-feminist work remains a topic for literary debate. But there’s no question that the tense and revelatory story is ultimately one of Nora Helmer’s self-awakening. Her discoveries, and the bold break she makes with her previous acquiescence, won’t stir an audience the way they did more than 130 years ago. But theater-goers can still be engrossed in Nora’s overdue metamorphosis. At the Old Globe, Kirsten Brandt directs a cogent production faithful to Ibsen’s sociopolitical commentary and at the same time indulgent of the play’s rich characters. Credit, too, Anne-Charlotte Hanes Harvey, with whom Brandt created this adaptation for the Sheryl and Harvey White stage. In their hands, A Doll’s House is far from a period piece.
As Nora, Gretchen Hall is prepossessing and very much in the buoyancy of a woman who, at the outset, believes that life is as good as it can get. She’s also agile and athletic when called for, and it’s mesmerizing to watch her Nora journey from near-flightiness to desperation to fierce resolve. Hall’s real-life husband, Fred Arsenault, makes Torvald Helmer proud and, in the end, clueless, without being an outright antagonist (though it’s hard to feel any sympathy for Torvald, who reaps what he sows). Richard Baird, a familiar presence on the San Diego theater scene, also avoids mere villainy as Krogstad, the discarded employee at Torvald’s bank who had loaned Nora money and is subsequently blackmailing her in an effort to regain his post. Admiring of both Torvald (his best friend) and Nora (whom he has admired deeply, from afar) is the dying Dr. Rank, vividly portrayed here by Jack Koenig, as both hapless and touching.
The gentle sound of breaking waves, intermittent in this production, heightens the atmosphere of wintertime in Norway and is also a reminder of the constancy of life. The world goes on even as those briefly inhabiting it lust, deceive and connive. In tossing aside her flirtations and abandoning her submission to a man who does not know how to love her, Nora realizes her better self. This Globe staging, ruminative and then finally emphatic, makes Nora’s realization ours as well.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat