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Ibsen’s classic ‘A Doll’s House’ on stage through Feb. 5

Susan Saccoccia | 1/20/2017, 6 a.m.
A scathing portrayal of the Helmers and their toxic compromises, the play premiered in Copenhagen, Denmark, on Dec. 21, 1879 ...
Andrea Syglowski (Nora) and Sekou Laidlow (Torvald) in the Huntington Theatre Company production of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” Photo: T. Charles Erickson

All is not well in the household of Torvald and Nora Helmer on Christmas Eve. Torvald tells his wife of his promotion to bank director. “Our lean years are over,” he exults, and Nora too is thrilled with the news. Yet she cajoles Torvald for cash, and he teases her for her spendthrift ways.

Nora needs the money to hush up Nils Krogstad, who once lent her the funds to pay for a year in Italy that cured Torvald of his tuberculosis. Claiming that the money was a gift from her father, Nora forged his signature to obtain the loan. Now, unless Nora gets Torvald to rehire Krogstad, whom he dismissed for unethical behavior, he will reveal all.

No spoiler alert is necessary for the famous final scene of Henrik Ibsen’s masterpiece, “A Doll’s House,” which concludes with the sound of a shutting door as Nora walks out on her husband, recognizing that their eight years of marriage is based on illusions.

A scathing portrayal of the Helmers and their toxic compromises, the play premiered in Copenhagen, Denmark, on Dec. 21, 1879 and brought Ibsen international fame. Since its debut, the play has been published in 78 languages and remains on stage somewhere almost all the time.

A new Huntington Theatre Company production of “A Doll’s House,” directed by Melia Bensussen with a script adapted by Bryony Lavery, is on stage through Feb. 5 at the Avenue of the Arts/BU Theatre, on Huntington Avenue.

Although staged by a much-awarded director and performed by an accomplished cast, the production takes a while to mine the full power of Ibsen’s drama.

James Noone’s set, deftly lit by Dan Kotlowitz, is a portrayal of domestic unease. A pared-down silhouette of a house fills the stage, lit by a sky of blue and red streaks that evokes an iconic painting by Ibsen’s occasional set designer, Edvard Munch, “The Scream” (1893-1910). The play opens with brooding music by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen.

The living room is furnished with period objects, including a gramophone and a turn-of-century couch. Costumes by Michael Krass are upper-middle-class daywear, natty for Torvald and somewhat frumpy for Nora, until Act III, when they don sensuous party attire.

Uneasy marriage

As directed by Bensussen, most of the actors perform at a higher than natural pitch. They speak rapidly, without fully developing the humanity of their characters. As a result, they remain at a distance from each other and the audience.

On opening night, last Wednesday, interactions among Nora, Torvald and their friends drew laughter at a frequency more typical of a drawing room comedy than a taut drama.

Sekou Laidlow’s Torvald is handsome and athletic-looking and speaks with a slight Southern lilt. As Nora, Andrea Syglowski expresses her character’s growing desperation by frequently covering her mouth with her hand.

It’s hard to see how these two could stay together for eight years. Torvald showers Nora with diminutives, such as bird names, as she twitters around the room, preparing presents and decorations to surprise their three children. When Nora insists that he not check the mailbox, fearing a letter has arrived from Krogstad, Laidlow’s Torvald says, “The child will have her way,” with a touch of disdain rather than teasing charm.