KPBS AIRDATE: MAY 27, 1998
[SOUND: slamming door]
It was the slamming door that shook the rafters of the world. When Nora Helmer walked out on her husband and children, closing the door behind her, she ushered in the 20th century and redefined the role of women in society. “A Doll’s House,” Ibsen’s most famous, controversial and influential play, was scandalous when it premiered in Copenhagen in 1879. This was because Nora, the precious plaything of her pompous, priggish husband, flagrantly evolved from a ‘trophy wife’ into a self-actualized, independent woman.
Though Ibsen is considered to be the father of modern drama, he was not the father of feminism. To him, women’s proper role was motherhood, but he also believed they had the right to become human beings, which they were denied in his “exclusively masculine society.” His play was a social satire, and his primary interest was in the vastly different ethical codes by which men and women are compelled to live.
These are by no means dated issues. But, in an effort to update them even further, film genius Ingmar Bergman created a stark, contemporary reworking of “A Doll’s House,” which he calls “Nora.” Bergman’s 1981 adaptation retains about two-thirds of Ibsen’s dialogue, but he’s streamlined the story and characters, distilled it all down to a complex psychological portrait of relationships. One Scandinavian dissecting and deconstructing the work of another. Bergman has turned Ibsen’s anti-Victorian masterpiece into a universal exposé, a fierce rebellion against sterile and restrictive social conventions.
In this San Diego premiere, which opens the La Jolla Playhouse’s 1998 season, Nora and Torvald are trapped in roles their society prescribes for wife and husband. He is the benevolent dictator who gives his wife everything — as long as she does as she’s told. She is a submissive, childlike, overprotected Barbie doll, who gradually comes to realize that, although she has secretly sacrificed a great deal for her husband’s health and happiness, he would sacrifice her and their marriage to preserve his position and keep up appearances.
Bergman has made the characters more multidimensional and even sympathetic. Neither the money-lender Krogstad nor the autocratic Torvald can be seen as villains. The dying Dr. Rank and the bitter girlhood friend Christine are also fleshed out. Each has become more emotionally conflicted, and this makes their actions more comprehensible.
The Playhouse production is spare and beautiful, bathed in red light, underscored with increasingly ominous music, as the noose tightens inexorably around Nora’s neck. Shackled by her society and her secret indiscretion, she struggles to break free from both. The final scene, lit in stark white, brings her sharply into focus, into the light.
But perhaps all the symbolism and clarified, simplified motivations are hammered home too directly here. And, for good or ill, there’s much less optimism in Bergman’s ending than in Ibsen’s. Metaphorically, the door is not even left open a crack. This Nora is gone. But although she professes confidence and clarity of thinking, she is still shrill and weepy, even at the end.
Kellie Overbey’s masterful performance kept her in complete control all through the piece — until her crucial final moments. Some of that had to do with her voice, which has a thin, strident quality that works better for the ‘child’ Nora than for the woman. Douglas Weston makes Torvald thoroughly credible, not a hateful husband but an all-too-familiar one. The rest of the cast is solid and polished, though director Les Waters encouraged an over-emotionalized ending that ultimately left me cold.
And yet, for the chilling familiarity and the timeless social commentary, this redecorated “Doll’s House” is well worth a visit.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.