By: Samuel L. Leiter
March 17, 2023: Jessica Chastain’s compelling performance of Nora in the current revival of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House at the Hudson Theatre reminds us not only that this is the most frequently revived of all the Norwegian dramatist’s plays but that Nora is one of the most sought-after roles by a leading actress of any from the late 19th century on. The role it replaced as an inevitable marker of female stardom was Marguerite Gautier in Dumas fils’ Camille.
Although first produced in 1879, A Doll’s House’s controversial theme of a woman’s awakening to her subordination in a patriarchal society prevented it from catching on for good until years later; interesting parallels can be drawn between it and Camille, the story of a courtesan’s downfall in Parisian society. Despite an 1883 production in Louisville, Kentucky, starring Helena Modjeska, New York didn’t see an English version (there had been a German one) until 1889, in a special matinee production starring Beatrice Cameron (Richard Mansfield’s wife) called Nora, or A Doll’s Home. It flopped.
However, another special matinee, in 1894, starring Minnie Maddern Fiske, revealed the play’s power; before long, Mrs. Fiske was recognized not only as Ibsen’s chief American representative, but America’s greatest actress. Soon after, in 1895, Janet Achurch, the British actress who introduced the play to London in 1889, gave her version on Broadway, but it was considered inferior to Mrs. Fiske’s.
After Mrs. Fiske, A Doll’s House became a staple of the American repertory, including numerous Broadway (and Off-Broadway) versions, usually featuring premiere stars, a constellation to which Ms. Chastain deservedly belongs. Her production, given a decidedly unusual realization in the minimalist vein favored by British director Jamie Lloyd (Betrayal, Cyrano de Bergerac), is a surprisingly hypnotic one that somehow works despite its abandoning conventional scenery, costumes, and lighting.
The Hudson’s bare, brick-walled stage, designed by Soutra Gilmour, shows a strip of the rear wall, rising about seven feet, in very pale gray, with the higher reaches much darker (the effect, created by paint, suggests that the lighting is responsible). Jon Clark’s lighting—including a raft of overhead battens that rise and fall slowly—uses the brighter portion of the wall as a perfect backdrop for casting on it the actors’ shadows. All the actors wear stylishly simple, black costumes (co-designed—for some reason—by Ms. Gilmour and Enver Chakartash).
A principal concession to overt scenic theatricality is a turntable that, employing precisely calibrated variations in speed, moves actors on and off when they don’t rely on their feet (or, in the case of Dr. Rank [the subtly insinuating Michael Patrick Thornton], a wheelchair) for their mobility. Brilliantly highlighting the many alterations in mood is the often ominous thrumming of the score, composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto.
Everything is arranged to make the most out of the least in telling the story of Nora and Torvald Helmer (Arian Moayed), an attractive young Norwegian couple married for eight years, raising three young children; the latter are heard, not seen, just as physical actions, like lighting someone’s cigar, are mentioned, but not executed. Props, in fact, are non-existent, apart from two small, white chairs, on one of which Ms. Chastain sits almost entirely through the 90-performance. Even Nora’s famous tarantella dance is done while seated, although she ends it lying on the floor.
The sculptural placement of the actors, who, when not involved in a scene, stand or sit at the perimeters, often facing the wings, is striking. However, in a few scenes, the blocking, such as it is, is distracting. In one, Krogstad and Nora have a conversation in which they sit on back-to-back chairs, hers facing the audience, his facing upstage, where he’s essentially invisible to much of the house. Another has the two of them share a single chair, each resting a lone buttock on it. I’m sure there’s a rationale for these choices, but why should one be bothered figuring it out when it’s more important we listen to the dialogue? In fact, such things can be the bane of such artfully crafted productions; the audience must pay attention to what the characters are saying while simultaneously pondering the defiantly unique directorial choices.
Ibsen’s familiar tale, of course, recounts Nora’s having once forged her dying father’s name to a document so as to obtain a loan from a lawyer named Krogstad (Okieriete Onoadowan, craftily potent) in order to help her husband—from whom the loan is kept secret—survive a potentially fatal illness. Krogstad’s knowledge of her crime imperils her marriage when he threatens to reveal it to Torvald unless Nora can prevent her husband—recently made head of a savings bank—from firing him. Nora, treated by Torvald as a child, his “little bird,” which she willingly accepts, believes her impeccably moralistic, but loving, husband will rise to the moment if the truth is ever revealed.
However, Torvald turns on her viciously when he learns what she has done. When the threat of her exposure is removed, he forgives her, but she has seen enough of what he’s made of, and, in one of the most famous moments in modern drama, which inevitably established the play as representative of modern feminism, decides to leave her husband and children in the interests of her self-improvement. Ibsen himself pooh-pooed the feminist argument, and the play can also be seen, among other things, as an indictment of relationships built on lies, a persistent Ibsenian theme.
There are important subplots, of course, involving an old friend, Kristine Linde (Jesmille Darbouze, warmly intelligent), emotionally linked to Krogstad, and Dr. Rank, dying of an inherited case of venereal disease. Still, he’s not too far gone to declare his love for Nora, a confession that sharply changes her mind about asking for the help he’s only too willing to offer.
What makes this production stand out is not so much its essentialist, barebones staging, as its suppressed, restrained, conversational style, which forces us to listen to the dialogue, delivered in an understated orchestrated manner that remains natural but avoids naturalism. Even scenes that might, in real life, be expressed in overtly demonstrative terms, like the happy reunion of Kristine and Nora, are given a muted approach, which is probably intended to give the big emotional outbursts that much more power by contrast. On the other hand, this makes Torvald’s eruption, when he learns of Nora’s past actions, so ferocious, that it seems more the director’s calculated choice than a convincing expression of Torvald’s disappointment.
And, in what is one of the play’s perpetual problems, the articulate response of the once naively childlike Nora to her disappointment in Torvald’s reaction is as hard to assimilate as ever, so sudden is her intellectual grasp of what has been staring her in the face all this time.
Amy Herzog’s adaptation accentuates these difficulties. Transitions and motives are more distinct than ever because of the way in which sceneryless scenes blend almost seamlessly together; the barbered, modern syntax; and the nuanced line readings. Profanity is limited, but we still get a “Fuck it all” to wake us up, along with other reminders that—apart from the 1879 projected on the rear wall at the beginning—the play is meant to be as pertinent today as when first produced.
The excellent Mr. Moayed is a sleek, modern Torvald, the casually patronizing way in which he infantilizes his wife, whom he often calls “baby,” believable enough; for my taste, though, his angry renunciation of Nora goes too far too fast.
Ms. Chastain’s performance is superbly constructed, the cracks in its veneer sometimes visible but, until there’s no recourse, never threatening to bring the structure down. When Nora finally succumbs, she does so with deep power mingled with restraint. Remaining in the spotlight throughout, even during those long, preshow moments as she slowly circles the space with the audience watching, she maintains unbroken focus. Ms. Chastain, aided by Mr. Lloyd’s theatrical insights, has met the role’s challenges and left her indelible mark on it.
A Doll’s House
141 W. 44th Street, NYC
Through June 10, 2023
Photography: Emilio Madrid