|A DOLL’S HOUSE|
Words definitely speak louder than actions in Jamie Lloyd’s much-anticipated revival of Henrik Ibsen’s landmark 1879 play “A Doll’s House,” now at the Hudson Theatre – in large part because Lloyd’s uber-minimalist production has stripped almost of all of the physical action from the production. Lloyd’s concept has the six-member cast -- led by the luminous Jessica Chastain as the troubled housewife Nora Helmer -– remain mostly seated on Soutra Gilmour’s non-set, only occasionally standing or moving.
Static as it sounds, the idea works surprisingly well for the most part, allowing us to focus firmly on both Ibsen’s message and his characters. Indeed, audience members already familiar with this drama will likely feel as if they’re hearing Ibsen’s words (as modernized by the great Amy Herzog) for the first time, while the plot comes off as extraordinary lucid, especially for theatergoers who have never encountered the piece before.
Nonetheless, having virtually nothing to look at but the actors, costumed entirely in black (which somehow required the talents of both Gilmour and Enver Chakartash) often seems more like a reality show challenge than a sound directorial choice. Would a single prop have ruined the show? (I think not!)
However, even if there had been a fully furnished home, it might have been virtually impossible to take one’s eyes off the stunningly beautiful Chastain, who remains front and center for almost the entire intermissionless two hours. In fact, she spends 15 minutes before the play’s start spinning around the stage with a mask-like composure that almost dares us to break her gaze. It’s perhaps our first clue that her Nora will be much tougher than we might have expected.
From the get-go, when her Nora tweets like a “little bird” to please her loving if annoyingly condescending husband Torvald (an effective Arian Moayed), there’s little question that Chastain’s Nora is not some nattering nitwit, but a woman playing a part, one dictated both by society as well as her own circumstances.
Her motives for subsuming her intelligence are manifold, from her sincere desire to please Torvald, charm their mutual best friend, the ill Dr. Rank (a winning, wheelchair-bound Michael Patrick Thornton), and, above all, maintain the status quo until she can get enough money to repay the loan she took out eight years ago from local lawyer Nils Krogstad (a surprisingly bland Okiriete Onaowodan) in order to ensure Torvald’s health.
Moreover, as she confides to her childhood friend Kristine (a fine Jesmillle Darbouze) – who has arrived for an unannounced visit – she is proud of herself for having found a solution (albeit an illegal and dangerous one) to her dilemma, something many women of her era would not even have attempted. And as the play progresses, Nora becomes increasingly disillusioned by a society in which women have few rights.
As she tells Krogstad: “A daughter doesn’t have the right to prevent her dying father from worrying? A wife doesn’t have the right to save her husband’s life? I may not be an expert on the law, but I’m pretty sure there are allowances for those kinds of situations.” Is it 1879 or 2023? You decide.
True, as the stakes get progressively higher – will Nora kill herself once her secret is revealed -- the play starts to descend a bit into melodrama, as does Chastain’s performance, which has been masterfully mercurial. But the actress recovers brilliantly in the show’s final section as Nora realizes the “right” way to exit her marriage (something which was unheard of in 1879!)
Unlike in other productions, though, it’s not like Nora has finally “woken up”; it’s more like a plan has long been swimming around in her brain and Torvald’s final “betrayal” has simply given her the courage to execute it, The door that ultimately slams is not, as usual, on stage, but in Nora’s head.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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