A DOLL’S HOUSE (Arden): Ibsen for our times

Becky Chong, Katharine Powell, and Cody Nickell in A DOLL'S HOUSE. Costumes by Olivera Gajic; set by Jorge Cousineau. Photo by

Becky Chong, Katharine Powell, and Cody Nickell in A DOLL’S HOUSE. Costumes by Olivera Gajic; set by Jorge Cousineau. Photo by Mark Garvin.

This #MeToo moment feels like a fitting time for the Arden Theatre to stage A DOLL’S HOUSE. It’s a fitting staging: Using a nuanced 2013 adaptation by Simon Stephens, Arden’s production regains the naturalistic dialog and interactions of Ibsen’s text, while focusing on themes pertinent to current cultural conversations.

Katharine Powell’s Nora flits around the stage like the hamster or chaffinch her husband calls her. Stephen’s translation, directed by Terence J. Nolen, interprets Nora’s flirtatious charm as proto-third wave feminism: Torvald Helmer (Cody Nickell) treats her as a doll, and she looks and dresses the part. She uses her sexuality as a tool, one of the few available to her under the strictures of her patriarchal society.

Ibsen’s feminist classic will endure as long as people remain the self-deluded hypocrites we are and always will be, but this production showcases a DOLL’S HOUSE that’s both a timelessly relevant damnation of our human falsehoods and an au courant commentary on the oppressive sexualization of women.

Her husband calls her “a little child” and her friend Kristine (Becky Chong) thinks she’s had it easy, but Nora’s resourcefulness stretches far beyond her physical charms. She plays the lark to Torvald, but Powell also communicates Nora’s strength and fears in keeping the decade-long secret on which her husband’s success rests. When events, in the form of disgraced money-lender Nils Krogstad (Akeem Davis), threaten to bring the secret to a head, Powell’s portrayal of Nora’s desperation fills the theater with seat-gripping and believable tension.

Director Terence J. Nolen apparently had to persuade Katharine Powell to accept the role of Nora, on the heels of a recent childbirth. The audience owes her and her growing family a debt of gratitude. Nolen’s wisdom in casting extends to the supporting characters. Choosing persons of color to embody most of the characters outside the Helmer family highlights the unaware privilege of Nora and Torvald’s bourgois life. (Nora naively asks Joliet Harris’s matronly African American maid if she minded giving up her only child to become a servant for the Helmer family.)

arden-theatre-katharine-powell

A DOLL’S HOUSE at the Arden Theater. Photo by Mark Garvin.

The most effective casting comes with Akeem Davis’s portrayal of Krogstad, and not just because he brings a strength and dignity to a character sometimes overplayed as a villain. Krogstad suffers from previous legal trouble; Davis plays him as a family man struggling to make his way in a world where the odds stack up against him. Placing a black man in the role illuminates Ibsen’s text.

Davis and Powell highlight a thoroughly accessible, impressively contemporary A DOLL’S HOUSE; it’s as modern as Lucas Hnath’s self-consciously current sequel A Doll’s House, Part 2, which ran on Broadway last year. (I’d plea to the Arden to stage this with Powell next season; Laurie Metcalf’s Nora reflected the actor’s background in broad-stroke sitcom performance.) Nolen’s pacing of Ibsen’s original builds to a climactic argument between Nora and Torvald that feels as viscerally real as Jorge Cousineau’s simple, well-spaced, in-the-round set.

Times have changed: a play that once shocked for Nora’s godless liberation now produces groans at Torvald’s blithely misogynistic counter-arguments. We root for Nora as she [er, spoiler alert] bids goodbye to her marriage, opens the door to the family home, and… um… walks down the steps. Nolen’s staging subverts Ibsen’s classic ending, leaving us with the sound of footsteps on stairs and then a distant door closing. He’s perhaps indicating the resounding impact of the famous door slam, but it’s an unnecessary and unwelcome interpolation: of the half-dozen or so stagings of this play I’ve seen, this is the third to mess around with the catharsis of the final moment.

Don’t.

[Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd Street] January 11-March 4, 2018; ardentheatre.org

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About the author

Christopher Munden

Your faithful correspondent and publisher Christopher Munden has written and edited for many publications, websites, and cultural institutions. He was an editor/publisher of the Philly Fiction book series, collections of short stories written by local writers and set in Philadelphia. He's also a soccer coach and a pretty good skier.