Ingmar Bergman’s Nora, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic drama A Doll’s House, makes its English-language New York debut at Cherry Lane Theatre.
by JK Clarke
It’s a risky thing, in theater, to take a fundamental aspect of a play and change it significantly. If the ploy fails, then the rest of the production’s strengths are entirely overlooked, often at the peril of other great performances or powerful staging. And if it succeeds, it rarely tips the play favorably relative to the risk. But occasionally, just occasionally, it provides a twist that allows us to see a familiar piece in an entirely different light. Such is the case with Nora, a Cherry Lane Theatre and La Femme Theatre Productions production deftly directed by Austin Pendleton.
Adapted from Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House by acclaimed film director Ingmar Bergman and produced for the first time in English (translated by Frederick J. Marker and Lise Lone-Marker), Nora is the story of a young, naive woman who, in an act both greedy and altruistic, commits fraud, jeopardizing her husband’s career and reputation; then learns the hard truth about her role in his life when her misdeeds come to light.
A straightforward reading of the text assures us that Nora, who has gone straight from her father’s care to her husband’s (and has had three children in their eight years of marriage) is somewhere between the ages of 25 and 30. But she is played here by Jean Lichty who is significantly older. But rather than distorting the play’s message, in this instance the alteration enhances it. Lichty’s Nora is not a young naif, but initially comes off as something of a wide-eyed simpleton, a woman who has been coddled her whole life and doesn’t seem to have had to act or think on her own. She is the “doll” that the original play refers to in its title. There is no expectation that this Nora will outgrow her youthful folly: what we see is what we get. And that makes not only her subversive acts, but her ultimate transformation all the more astonishing and perhaps more believable.
But Nora is a play about transformation. Every single character, so skillfully directed by Pendleton, is either in the midst of personal upheaval or about to be. Nora’s husband Torvald (Todd Gearhart) makes the simple act of shedding his clothes a transitional moment. Meanwhile, Larry Bull’s fascinatingly complex Nil Krogstad is not just a mere blackmailer. He is about to lose his job and is grasping at ways to anchor his life. It’s just luck that as he’s manipulating Nora that her recently widowed family friend Christine (a subtle, yet powerful Andrea Cirie) comes back into his life (they had a former liaison) and helps rescue his dignity and humanity. And the wonderful George Morfogen (best known for his role as the beloved prisoner Bob Rebadow on HBO’s Oz) is a fascinating Dr. Rank, the terminally ill family friend who is no longer willing to hide his love for Nora, much to her dismay. One hangs on his every word, for he seems full of wisdom and insight despite being merely lovelorn.
Nora’s source material, written in the late 1870s in Sweden and based on an actual situation in Ibsen’s life, is a prime example of the Realism movement that was, at the time, sweeping the literary world, with Emile Zola and Frank Norris producing some of the more important works. But it wasn’t merely the close, honest inspection of daily life that marks the piece, but rather the insightful character studies and Ibsen’s (and in this case also Bergman’s) stunningly beautiful writing that sets it apart. As Dr. Rank confesses himself to Nora, he’s not merely a one-dimensional suitor, but a conflicted one: “These past few days I’ve taken a general audit of my internal accounts,” he tells her, “Bankrupt!”
Pendleton further augments the play’s depth by having his secondary characters present (usually sitting quietly in a chair) during scenes they’re not in. It’s a manoeuvre he used in this past spring’s terrific production of Hamlet (at CSC) to great and powerful effect. It works just as well here. We are reminded that while a character may not be present for a conversation, he looms large in the play. Pendleton’s device allows these secondary characters to demonstrate their importance in the protagonists’ lives.
Punctuated by gorgeous, yet serious, period costumes (Theresa Squire) and era establishing set and lighting (Harry Feiner), one is quickly and easily immersed in Nora and taken through the intermission-free hour and a half (give or take) in the blink of an eye. It’s a delightful production that facilitates an opportunity to fully appreciate the genius of Ibsen and Bergman.
Nora. Through December 12 at the Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street, between Bedford and Barrow Streets in the West Village). www.cherrylanetheatre.org