Theater Review: Pared Down Ibsen Cuts a Lasting Impression

Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, September 30, 2017

After reading the script of A Doll’s House one warm summer night in the mid-1970s, I stumbled out of my dormitory and onto a Boston side street, dazed at the audacity of 19th-century dramatist Henrik Ibsen’s dialogue and the courage of his heroine Nora Helmer.

After watching a matinee of Northern Stage’s production of the play during the past week’s heat wave, I stumbled out of the Barrette Center for the Arts and onto Gates Street in White River Junction, aghast at how many nuances of plot and character my not-yet-20-year-old self had missed in the mere reading.

Credit for this awakening goes first to Northern Stage for producing Robert Kropf’s modern translation with six fewer characters and almost an hour less of dialogue than Ibsen wove into the original script almost 140 years ago. Without Nora and husband Torvald Helmer’s three children, their housemaid, the kids’ nurse, a porter and a piano cluttering designer Alexander Woodward’s stark, dark, domestic set, the five main characters have more room to state their cases, in deeds as well as words.

And in the hands and expressions and voices of the five actors who have taken on these roles, each character emerges with greater clarity and, ultimately, with more sympathy.

During their early, unexpected reunion, Nora (Olivia Gilliatt) is telling Kristine, the widow who will help the young housewife untangle the web of deceit that’s now trapping her, about how Nora surreptitiously took a job copying manuscripts for a while to help makes ends meet during a family crisis.

“It was a tremendous pleasure to sit there working and earning money,” Nora says. “It was like being a man.”

As Kristine, Hannah Chodos waits for half a beat, as if resisting the urge to roll her eyes, before asking, “How much have you been able to pay off in that way?”

As Nora’s husband Torvald Helmer, Jeffries Thaiss swings rapidly, sometimes from line to line, between Victorian-era stodginess and a manic desperation to economize, to keep up appearances and to keep Nora in her place. Thaiss ultimately transforms Torvald from a stock male-chauvinist pig into a man who struggles in his societal role as much as his wife is fluttering in a cage that the prevailing culture demands its wives and mothers occupy.

Playing the couple’s friend (and Nora’s not-so-secret admirer) Doctor Rank (pronounced “ronk​”), Gordon Clapp, ​​​an ​​​Emmy Award-winner for his role as a detective in NYPD Blue, provides an avuncular counterweight to Torvald, much as Chodos’ Kristine balances out Gilliatt’s Nora, a frantic bird on a wire trying to keep track of all her deceptions.

As the fifth wheel that skews the play’s relationships, the blackmailer Krogstad enters as a monster and evolves into one more flawed human, thanks to Matthew Cohn’s restraint in a role that can tailspin into stereotype.

Under the direction of Eric Bunge and the choreography of Eric Love, the cast rarely stands still, circling the stage’s tight quarters in the bustles, cravats, waistcoats and other garb of the era in which costume designer Hunter Kaczorowski drapes them​​​​​​ to match the mood of each scene​. Light designer Tyler Perry expertly illuminates and silhouettes each in his and her turn, particularly as Nora searches for ways out of her cage. In the end she finds it at the hallway door on the right side of the stage, which opens one more time to reveal a thick fog representing the future.

Once Nora’s shadow disappears into the mist, with Torvald watching in hope that his “sparrow” — a “skylark” in Ibsen’s original text — will reconsider, outer door slams forevermore.

That moment, wrought by sound designer Alek Deva, will echo for the audience for years to come.

Northern Stage’s production ofA Doll’s Houseruns through Oct. 28, including performances this afternoon at 2 and tonight at 7:30. After taking a week’s break, the production resumes at 5 on the afternoon of Oct. 8, then begins a cycle in repertory with the one-man showRobert Frost: This Verse Business. For tickets ($13.75 to $57.75) and more information, visit northernstage.org or call 802-296-7000.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com.