A Doll's House and The Father
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A Doll’s House and The Father: Theater reviews by Sandy MacDonald
A Doll’s House
If the familiar Henrik Ibsen scenes unfold with unaccustomed celerity and clarity, thank Thornton Wilder, who dashed off this loose translation in 1937 as a vehicle for Ruth Gordon. Maggie Lacey fills Gordon's shoes pertly. She plays Nora Helmer as a smart cookie who has a plan in place not just for stashing her forbidden macaroons, but for keeping her husband, Torvald (John Douglas Thompson), blind to her financial machinations. Shorn of Norwegian weirdness (all those animalizing endearments!), the script achieves a more accessible, universal resonance.
Director Arin Arbus’s mise en scène is strictly period: The transverse parlor carved by designer Riccardo Hernandez from the cavernous Polonsky space appears candlelit. There’s nothing musty, though, about the interactions. Long before she slams the door, Lacey’s Nora has the makings of a modern woman. She employs every resource at her disposal—from sexual allure to “diplomacy”—to sustain a family life that happens to be a fantasy. Hers is no free ride.
Jesse J. Perez tends to mustache-twirl as Krogstad (Nora’s blackmailer), but Linda Powell is nicely grounded as his former inamorata, fallen on hard times. Nigel Gore makes for a congenial Dr. Rank, one whose charm outstrips his morbidity. Thompson admirers will avidly await Torvald’s inevitable eruption, which does not disappoint—except, pivotally, Nora.—Sandy MacDonald
What a piece of work is woman! Compared to Nora feathering her Doll’s House (which Theatre for a New Audience is presenting in repertory), Laura (Lacey)—wife of Adolf, a provincial army captain (Thompson)—is a plotter on a par with Iago. Intent on thwarting Adolf’s plan to send their daughter off to college, Laura (a skilled provocateur, if legally powerless) manages to undermine not only his authority but also his sanity.
Turgid doesn’t begin to describe the dialectic embedded in August Strindberg’s melodramatic battle of wills, and yet adapter David Greig manages to winkle out humor and insight. Thompson brilliantly straddles the line of is-he-or-isn’t-he (crazy), but it’s Laura who shapes the narrative, for the benefit of a doctor (Nigel Gore) she has called in to consult. Scientific fervor (the captain is an amateur geologist) can easily pass for megalomania, and Laura knows just which buttons to push. The tipping point comes when she nudges Adolf to question his paternity.
DNA testing has obviated this millennial dilemma, but rest assured, a modern Laura would manage to find comparable ammunition. Though Strindberg was clearly on the side of his hog-tied title character, a grudging respect is surely due such a resourceful virago.—Sandy MacDonald
Theatre for a New Audience (Off Broadway). By Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg. Directed by Arin Arbus. With Maggie Lacey, John Douglas Thompson. Running times: A Doll’s House: 2hrs 20 mins. One intermission. The Father: 1hr 45mins. No intermission.