2010-04-08 / Arts & Entertainment News

Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House,’ circa 1879, still speaks to our time

THEATER REVIEW

There’s a scene in “Manhattan Murder Mystery” that never fails to make me laugh.

Woody Allen’s wife, played by Diane Keaton, thinks there’s something suspicious about a neighbor’s death. But he wants her to stay out of it.

“I’m your husband; I command you to sleep!” he tells her. “Sleep! I command it! I command it! Sleep!”

As if anyone could sleep on command!

When she starts to leave, he runs alongside her, saying: “I forbid you! forbid you to go! I’m forbidding it!”

It’s deliciously ludicrous; she pays no attention to him and walks right out the door to follow her hunches.

I was reminded of those scenes while watching Gulfshore Playhouse’s production of “A Doll’s House.”

Of course, Mr. Allen’s movie is a contemporary comedy, and Henrik Ibsen’s classic play is a serious drama.

Larry Bull as Torvald and Beth Hylton as his wife, Nora. Larry Bull as Torvald and Beth Hylton as his wife, Nora. But the night I saw it, the audience couldn’t help but laugh and guffaw toward the end of the play, as Torvald (Larry Bull) blithers and rationalizes and twists everything to bolster his own ego.

He’s just berated his own loving wife, Nora (Beth Hylton), for breaking the law in order to save his life. Concerned only about his own image and how circumstances will affect him, he gives no thought for her. In fact, he forbids her to have anything to do with their children, because her “immorality” will poison them. They will live together, but only as brother and sister, for appearances’ sake, he declares.

He’s as self-righteous as he is clueless.

But soon after, when circumstances turn, rather than ask forgiveness for how he’s acted, he tells her that he forgives her.

BULL BULL Torvald also tells Nora that her mistake makes her all the more precious to him because it “reveals an adorable helplessness,” and when a husband forgives his wife it “makes him love her all the more since she is the recipient of his generosity.”

And the women in the audience laugh, because they know nonsense when they hear it.

And on stage, Nora recognizes it as well. For the first time, she refuses to acquiesce to her husband and stroke his ego. She stands up for herself.

This is part of what made “A Doll’s House” so controversial when it debuted in 1879. The play was banned in England, and the lead actress for the German production refused to play the role until Mr. Ibsen rewrote the ending. (Which he did, but later regretted. The original ending is typically the one used in productions.)

HYLTON HYLTON A few years after the play’s debut, the playwright left his native Norway and lived abroad for 27 years.

Nora Helmer isn’t the first woman — or the last — to be treated as her husband’s possession, someone to privately amuse him and publicly act as an advertisement of his manliness; but she

is considered the first woman in modern drama to stand up to her husband and demand to be seen as his equal.

It might be more than 130 years old, but “A Doll’s House” speaks to our time and is still taught in high schools and colleges all over.

No need to be stuffy

Though costumed in splendid 19thcentury clothing, the Gulfshore Playhouse production at The Norris Center seems contemporary, thanks to Frank McGuinness’s adaptation and to director Kristen Coury’s insistence that the ensemble act naturally, not stuffy.

Both Ms. Hylton and Mr. Bull play their roles well, but I was hard-pressed to find even a glimmer of anything likeable in either character. Mr. Bull’s Torvald is completely self-absorbed, his continuous pet names for his wife (“my skylark,” “Little Miss Stubborn-toes”) more sickening than sweet.

And Ms. Hylton plays Nora as a little girl, oblivious to the emotions or struggles of others, even boasting about her good fortune and wealth though her old friend Kristine (Brandy Zarle) has just told her that she’s widowed and destitute.

Nora comes across like a mindless twit, with no substance. Later, as her anxiety level rises, she’s practically manic.

The pacing of this production seems off; when Nora’s great epiphany comes, it seems too sudden and unrealistic. The staging also makes the play melodramatic, almost soap opera-ish.

The other actors present their characters as people with depth, including the villain, Krogstad (Steven Cole Hughes). Mr. Hughes’s portrayal is nicely nuanced, and we understand why his character did the things he did.

This is a play, after all, not just about marriage and relationships, but about the things people do out of desperation when their backs are against the wall, about reputation and character, about whether the law of love is higher than the laws of man.

Ms. Zarle plays Kristine with a stern determination fueled by her own desperation. As the play progresses, it’s obvious she’s much wiser than Nora. As she explains, she’s had more experience in life and has, by necessity, learned from it.

Nora, on the other hand, acts like a child and is so treated by the men in her life: first her father, then her husband. But she also seems content to stay that way, until pressures force her to grow.

Steve Brady plays Dr. Rank, Torvald’s friend and a daily visitor to the household. Mr. Brady does a great job with this role; his scenes with Nora (especially when he reveals that he’s been carrying a torch for her) are some of the best in the show.

Local actress Carole Fenstermacher has a small part as the family’s nanny and, unfortunately, is not on stage as much as we’d like.

Some distractions

The set, by Robert Wolin, is aptly Nordic and conservative, with green patterned wallpaper and paintings hanging from crisp white molding. (The actors seemed to have some trouble with getting a door to stay shut, though.) And the lighting, by Lisa Soverino, was somewhat distracting when actors were downstage. Perhaps they were off their mark, but there seemed to be strange light patterns on their clothing whenever they ventured too close to the audience.

Lighting at the beginning and ending of scenes was painfully slow; perhaps it was an attempt to add drama to the production, but it only winds up detracting from it. Likewise for the odd music at the end of the play; it seems unnecessary and out of place.

Though this production is uneven at times, Mr. Ibsen’s play still packs a wallop. Theatergoers will find much to ponder and discuss, long after Nora slams her famous door. ¦

in the know


>> “A Doll’s House,” presented by Gulfshore
Playhouse
>> When: through April 11
>> Where: The Norris Center,
755 Eighth Ave. S., Naples
>> Cost: $38, $34 and $30 ($15 for students)
>> Info: (866) 811-4111 or
www.gulfshoreplayhouse.org

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