The story goes that when A Doll’s House premiered in 1879, it was so controversial that party invitations in Stockholm requested that guests not mention the play. In fact, the ending was shocking enough that Henrik Ibsen’s German agent forced him to rewrite the final scene before it could play in German theaters. Unsurprisingly, the polemical side of this work has lost much of its power. Nora Helmer (Hattie Morahan), a child-like woman trapped in a patronizing marriage to bank manager Torvald (Dominic Rowan), is no longer viewed as a radical woman so much as a proto-feminist, and her escape from Torvald and his love-struck best friend Dr. Rank (Steve Toussaint) plays as the inevitable conclusion of this frightening, claustrophobic drama instead of a scandalous first step on the way to Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem.
Wisely, then, director Carrie Cracknell, who has imported her production from London’s Young Vic Theatre, has highlighted not the social problems central to A Doll’s House but instead the wrenching domestic tragedy that is its vessel. Her Ibsen is almost Hitchcockian—throughout the play, Ms. Morahan’s husky voice gradually gives way to a perpetual breathlessness as she waits for Torvald to discover that years ago she borrowed money from his employee Nils Krogstad (Nick Fletcher) to fund a trip to Italy that saved his life; meanwhile, a stage that spins and spins between scenes creates a montage-like effect suggesting an unscrewing of this ill-founded doll’s house. By imagining Ibsen as the writer of a suspense, Ms. Cracknell has teased out his social concerns in a far more affecting way than the usual Ibsenist, bludgeoning critique. Take, for example, the dress that Nora must mend before she attends a costume party—why is it torn? Is it because Torvald, like he almost does again in Act Three, raped her the last time she wore it? Granted, Mr. Rowan’s performance, in overcorrecting the mistake of casting Torvald as a mindless, patriarchal villain, underplays some of his menace. When he calls Nora his little dove, his bluebird, or his skylark, the response elicited is laughter at his anachronistic chauvinism. There is only a brief moment, when he muses that he thinks of her as both his wife and as his daughter, where we get the sense of a sinister and incestuous sexuality lurking behind his parochial, nineteenth-century sensibility.
Still, this is a minor complaint about a production that both makes Ibsen more entertaining and more relevant than any I have ever seen. When, at the end, Nora abandons Torvald and her children, we are left not with the feeling of a triumphant and progressive victory, but of a hostile world unready to accept her choice. What, after all, is she going to do tomorrow?
A Doll’s House runs through March 23rd at the BAM Harvey Theater. 651 Fulton Street Brooklyn, NY. 2 hours 40 minutes. One intermission.