|Andrea Syglowski and Sekou Laidlow in the Huntington Theatre's A Doll’s House. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)|
You can set a play by Shakespeare or Molière in any era, but you can’t mess around with the setting of a realist play or it no longer makes sense. Yet contemporary directors keep doing it, subjecting the modern realist classics to time shifts that have the effect of bowdlerizing them. The Abbey Theatre’s touring production of Sean O’Casey’s great tragedy about the Easter 1916 uprising, The Plough and the Stars, which American Repertory Theatre imported to Cambridge last fall, threw it forward into the twenty-first century. In the last act of the Roundabout Theatre’s recent Cherry Orchard, Chekhov’s bankrupt Russian aristocrats – a class that was, of course, wiped out or driven into exile by the Russian Revolution – walk out into the world in modern-day outfits. And now we have the Huntington Theatre’s mounting of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (adapted by Bryony Lavery), with an ambiguous setting that is, however, definitely post-1930, judging from the dresses Michael Krass has designed for Nora Helmer (Andrea Syglowski) and her childhood friend Christine Linde (Marinda Anderson).
But the narrative premise of this 1879 play is that Nora, in order to take her husband Torvald (Sekou Laidlow) on a life-saving holiday after his health breaks down, forged her just-deceased father’s name on a promissory note so that Krogstad (Nael Nacer) would lend her the money – and now, when Torvald, the director of the bank that employs Krogstad, has decided to let him go, he tries to blackmail Nora into persuading her husband to keep him on, threatening to reveal her indiscretion. (He’s worked out the truth based on the date of her father’s signature.) This is a plot that only makes sense in an age where women don’t have the power to secure money under their own names, and that social inequity is linked to what Ibsen sees as the problem with marriage: that it is a union of non-equals. Like all great plays, A Doll’s House still resonates today, but if you pretend that there’s no difference between the role of women before they had the vote or the right to make financial transactions and the role of women after those realities shifted, then you wind up with a muddy set of generalities. The whole idea of realism is that it replicates a specific moment in time in vivid, intricate detail; the universality of the characters and of the ideas in the play are hidden beneath the precise surface. You don’t need to put the Tyrone family in Long Day’s Journey into Night into modern clothes to emphasize the eternal verities of familial relationships, and if you do, then the details in the dialogue (about a matinee idol touring the country for decades in a vehicle that guarantees his income, or the way doctors used to make dope addicts out of women after difficult childbirth by freely prescribing morphine) become real head-scratchers.
Melia Bensussen’s production of A Doll’s House underscores the modern setting by encouraging the actors to sound as contemporary as possible. I’ve seen individual actors carry off classic roles despite the contemporary tenor of their line readings (Brooke Smith in the movie Vanya on 42nd Street is a notable example) but when an entire company is coached to do so, to my ear, at least, it sounds odd and disorienting. That’s one of the reasons I never settled into the performances in this Doll’s House – especially Syglowski’s, though she’s clearly talented and she makes some bold acting choices, like playing Nora’s merriment neurotically. The other problem, especially in her scenes with Anderson, is that their twenty-first-century banter renders Ibsen’s text as a series of everyday banalities. A modern playwright can try to play with the lines, but they’re still stylized. Ibsen starts with the conventions of melodrama and then flips them; if you try to eliminate the formality of the language, his intention is lost – and you don’t know what you’re listening to. Among the cast, Nacer is the most successful because he gets closest to the meaning of the lines, but even he, like Jeremy Webb (as Dr. Rank), is ultimately defeated by the style of the production. Laidlow’s in another class entirely: he’s absurdly miscast as Torvald and he’s utterly out of his depth. He reads the lines as if he had no idea what he was saying – and he certainly has no idea that the character is a petty tyrant. I couldn’t make head or tail out of the relationship between the Helmers.
You can, of course, produce a realist play with a non-realist set, and the best thing about this Doll’s House is James Noone’s expressionist design, a pared-down version of the Helmer house with a Munch-like painted backdrop. Otherwise the show is at sea, while Ibsen’s play beckons from a far horizon.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.