Playwright: Henrick Ibsen ( adapted by Sandra Delgado and Michael Halberstam )
At: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe. Tickets: WritersTheatre.org . Price: $35-80. Runs through: Dec. 15
I have a mixed relationship with Nora Helmer, the protagonist of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. On the one hand, her final and decisive actionleaving the home in which she is treated as a frivolous "little songbird"defines her as a major proto-feminist heroine. On the other, she spends the first 97 percent of the play perfectly content to act as the empty-headed little doll that her husband Torvald thinks she is. Nora is, to put it mildly, complicateda fact that makes her all the more compelling.
I'm happy to say that she is just as compelling in Writers Theatre's new streamlined version of the play, an adaptation by Sandra Delgado and Michael Halberstam. Directed by Lavina Jadhwani, this new ninety-minute A Doll's House is Ibsen reinvented for a modern audience: all of the joy of the play but none of the excesses.
Nora's life consists of willingly playing roles that men define for her, and Cher Alvarez portrays her with energy and enthusiasm. Shopping, playing with her children, entertaining her husband, gently flirting with family friend Dr. Rank ( a brooding Bradley Grant Smith ), and sneaking an occasional macaroon ( which Torvald, played by Greg Matthew Anderson, has forbidden ) fill her days and make her happy. However, the sudden appearance of two people from her past threatens the simple joys of her life.
Christine ( Tiffany Renee Johnson ), an old friend who has fallen on hard times, arrives for what starts out as a happy reunion but quickly takes on new meaning as both women contrast Christine's serious, hard life with Nora's frivolous, undemanding one. But it is the much more ominous arrival of Krogstad ( Adam Poss ) that truly casts a pall over Nora's existence, as he demands that she help him keep his tenuous position in Torvald's bank or he will reveal a secret that could destroy her.
Delgado and Halberstam's script leaves all of these complicated relationships intact, along with Ibsen's wit, and what isn't here isn't missed. Even the minor character of Anne Marie, Nora's housekeeper and former nanny played by Amy J. Carle, feels fleshed out. But it's the relationship of the Helmers that gets the most consideration.
The fact that Anderson is not physically imposing drives home the point that Nora has willingly subverted any sense of self in order to please him. Though she often wheedles him into favors, she's perfectly happy being his frivolous little songbird. Torvald's condescending demeanor toward her is just something she takes for granted. Anderson helps us to see that this character is every bit as shallow as Nora: Torvald has built the perfect little life for himself, one that neither party can see is actually a house of cards.
Alvarez perfectly embodies the ever-changing moods of Nora. She is equally comfortable as the little songbird flitting about the stage as she is in her final emphatic exit. The change that comes over her when Torvald's imperfections become clear is earned and, though her exit is certainly calculated for dramatic effect ( she even changes her costume for it ), it is clear that she is ready to play a new role.
At a time when several women are running for President and being taken quite seriously, it's interestingand probably sadthat this 120-year-old play still seems relevant. As impressive as Nora's final "woke" stand is, her entire life until that moment is a reminder to women everywhere that too many men today still seek to control them, many for far more insidious reasons than Torvald has. The Krogstad/Christine subplot makes it clear that change is possible, but until men like Torvald wake up as well, all of our historical advances are tentative.