It’s the most famous slammed door in theater history. And it’s the most satisfying slammed door for a feminist. It’s 1879 and that exit signifies Nora Helmer’s departure from husband, children and home at the end of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. And don’t talk to me about spoilers. When a play is 100 years old, there are no spoilers. Unless you live on another theatrical planet, you know what that door slam means.
The ending of A Doll’s House is as satisfying as always in the new production at Raven Theatre, directed by Lauren Shouse. It’s a new translation and adaptation by Anne-Charlotte Hanes Harvey and Kirsten Brandt. The more contemporary language doesn’t detract from the play’s classic setting in Norway at a late 19th century Christmas. Raven’s very wide main stage accommodates several playing areas within the Helmer family parlor (classic design in grays and muted tones by Jacqueline Penrod).
Nora Helmer (Amira Danan), young and pretty, is all aflutter with Christmas preparations and shopping for gifts for her husband and children. She and Torvald (Gage Wallace) disagree about her spending. He’s concerned because it will be a while before they see the financial rewards of his important new role as director of a bank.
Wallace plays Torvald as a smarmy patriarch, heaping diminutives on his silly little wife: My little spendthrift, my little song bird, my featherhead, my squirrel. And he chides her: “No debt, no borrowing. There can be no freedom or beauty about a home that depends on borrowing and debt.”
He may think Nora is a featherhead but she is a secret strategist. When an old friend Mrs. Linde (Shadana Patterson) visits, they exchange stories of their lives. Nora tells her about Torvald’s severe illness that required them to spend a year in the south for his recovery. Nora confesses that without Torvald’s knowledge, she borrowed the large sum of money necessary.
Mrs. Linds is shocked. “But where did you get it from? Because a wife cannot borrow without her husband’s consent,” Mrs. Linde says. “Oh, if a wife has any head for business, a wife has the wit to be a little bit clever,” Nora replies. Now
The source of Nora’s loan was Krogstad (Nelson Rodriguez), a bank employee who now fears losing his job when Torvald takes over. Nora has made regular loan payments, but he knows she faked the signature on the promissory note. Krogstad blackmails Nora to get her help in protecting his job.
The tense narrative is relieved with a secondary story of a holiday party at the Helmers’ home. Nora will dance the tarantella for their guests in a dress that Torvald had made for her. Torvald coaches her in the dance. What should be a merry time only reafffirms Torvald’s insistence on controlling his wife’s every move.
All the financial secrets are blown open in act two and Nora emerges from her little-songbird identity to tell Torvald she doesn’t love him and she’s leaving. “Have you not been happy here?” he asks. “No, not happy, only merry,” she replies.
Nora’s speech about moving from her father’s house to Torvald’s house is a classic notice of change in a woman’s role.
“I was simply transferred from papa’s hands into yours. You arranged everything according to your own taste, and so I got the same tastes as you–or else I pretended to, I am really not quite sure which–I think sometimes the one and sometimes the other. When I look back on it, it seems to me as if I had been living here like a poor woman–just from hand to mouth. I have existed merely to perform tricks for you, Torvald. But you would have it so. You and papa have committed a great sin against me. It is your fault that I have made nothing of my life.”
And the door slams behind her.
Shouse’s direction makes the rich texture of Ibsen’s story and the new adaptation come alive. Both Danan and Wallace portray their characters with skill, but one never feels any chemistry between them. My description of the play doesn’t mention two admirable cast members. Mike Dailey plays the old family friend, Dr. Rank, and Kelli Walker is the children’s nurse, Anne-Marie. The small children are heard, but not seen.
Lighting of the Penrod set design is by Becca Jeffords. Original music and sound design are by Eric Backus. The period costumes are by Izumi Inaba. In Nora’s final costume change for her departure, she wears a knee-length skirt, tights and tall boots, thus signaling her identity as a modern woman.
The 21st-century ending of Ibsen’s 19th century play is one reason why Dollhouse, the 2005 Goodman Theatre adaptation by Rebecca Gilman, infuriated me. Nora, depicted as a spoiled brat in Gilman’s version, leaves, slams the door, and then comes back. The setting and language are contemporary Lincoln Park, which made that non-Ibsenesque ending—and the whole play—so exasperating.
A Doll’s House continues at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St., thru March 22. Tickets are $46 for performances Thursday-Sunday. Thursday is “under 30 Thursday,” when patrons under 30 can buy tickets for $15. Running time is 2.25 hours with one intermission.