“Nora” — Westport’s Production Misses

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Westport Country Playhouse is presenting the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s adaptation of the classic play A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen.  Here it is called Nora, and Bergman stripped the play down to five characters and just under two hours in running time.  We no longer see the children, the housemaid or Anne-Marie the nursemaid. The lack of the latter character and any reference to her story, removes one of the analogous plots in this play.

Liv Rooth and Lucas Hall. Photo by  Carol Rosegg
Liv Rooth and Lucas Hall. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Instead, we are focused on the problems of Nora and her husband Torvald.  After years of economic struggle they are about to be secure but it may all come tumbling around them.  Years ago Nora borrowed money to pay for a trip which helped Torvald recover from a serious illness.  She has managed to make payments, but she has put herself at the mercy of a desperate man who is trying to reestablish his reputation and social acceptability.

The original Ibsen play is a classic of dramatic realism, but Bergman at times gave it a dreamlike state. In cutting the play, Bergman slighted some of the themes of the original piece in the process of adapting it. This is a play with a lot of “meat” in it — not just in its secondary plots which all expand upon and help us understand the many sides of the various dilemmas — but also in the issues it raises: the role of women, the nature of marriage, the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions and the Biblical idea of the “sins of the father being visited upon the young.”

I first saw this adaptation — translated by Frederick J. Marker and Lise-Lone Marker at Williamstown Theater Festival in 1993.  I was blown away with the adaptation and Michael York as one of the best Torvald’s I have seen.

So, I was looking forward to seeing this version again.  A Doll’s House is a play I both love and teach regularly.  I have seen students become caught up in the situation and the issues.  Class debate is usually lively.

But, this production directed by David Kennedy is problematic. First of all, he has set the play in the 1950s if we can judge by the costumes and mid-century modern furniture.  That could make sense, since at that time there were still many restrictions on married women’s independence including borrowing money. But like so many directors (and authors) who have attempted to set the play in contemporary America — I’m thinking of Gordon Edelstein, artistic director of Long Wharf — it just doesn’t work as well.  I’ve often wondered if it were set in a modern society that still truly limited women (Saudi Arabia, maybe) then it might be effective.

In the case, the audience laughed at some of the lines that were not funny, because they seemed incongruous to the setting. I doubt they would have laughed if the play had been set in the 1880s.

This diminished the power of the piece.

Kennedy does establish the dreamlike feeling that Bergman intended by the setting he uses; a mid-century modern home with no walls and  no true entrance the house — people enter anywhere. At times this shows characters almost creeping up on Nora.  At other times, it seems as if they are conjured by her mind. The play opens with a window on the dark curtain, an almost too obvious symbol.

Liv Rooth plays Nora, the central character.  Nora is a difficult character because in the beginning of the play she appears to be a self-absorbed ditzy housewife.  While there is truth to that, it is only one side of Nora. Therefore we start by judging harshly and only later begin to realize that she more than that initial image.  Here is another place where Bergman’s truncation hinders our understanding. But Rooth fails to hint at the other side of Nora, so that her transformation to a determined woman does feel grounded in the character.

Lucas Hall is excellent as her husband, Torvald and you feel his loss at the end of the

Stephaie Janssen as Mrs. Linde, Liv Rooth as Nora and LeRoy McClain as Dr. Rank.  Photo by Carol Rosegg
Stephaie Janssen as Mrs. Linde, Liv Rooth as Nora and LeRoy McClain as Dr. Rank. Photo by Carol Rosegg

play. In this version, he is neither too much of a prig (an often failing of Torvalds) nor too violent. Stephanie Janssen plays Nora’s determined and mouselike friend Christine Linde as just that.  But again, you often fail to find a multi-dimensional character. LeRoy McClain, as Dr. Rank, a good friend of both Nora and Torvald, is the most sophisticated character. But even here I didn’t feel his situation as I should have.

Shawn Fagan as the purported villain of the piece, Nils Korgstad, used a variety of physical jerks and tics that did not seem either appropriate for his desperate state nor menacing. Krogstad is both a weak man and a sympathetic one at times, but you are too focused on the hands, the bobbing of the knees and the other physical quirks to understand him.

Throughout the piece, the costumes by Katherine Roth reinforce the 1950s feeling; Nora’s costumes reinforce her “ditzy” persona.

But the biggest burden in the production falls to lighting designer Matthew Richards.  It is up to him to focus our attention:  on Nora on the couch, on the mail box, and on the people passing by at the rear of the set.

But Kennedy’s biggest mistake is the ending.  Bergman had set the ending not in the family’s parlor but in Nora and Torvald’s bedroom.  While the first part of the ending — Torvald in the dark, naked — can be a very obviously symbolic,  Kennedy’s next move which was to bring stage and house lights up to full — just makes everyone in the audience uncomfortable. Torvald stands facing us stark naked.

This ending also makes it difficult for parents to bring teenagers to see this production. To my mind, it was not necessary. I don’t recall if the Williamstown production omitted the famous “door slam” or not, but here, while I was waiting for it, it never came. Perhaps because the set really had no doors to slam.

Nora is at the Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, off Route 1 through Aug. 2.  For tickets and information call the box office toll free at 1-888-927-7529 or visit http://www.westportplayhouse.org.


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