By Carol Rocamora . . . 

From the moment you enter the Hudson Theatre, you know you’re in for a unique experience. There they are on a bare stage, waiting for you: all the characters in A Doll’s House (whom you recognize immediately from your college courses and theater history books and whose story you know by heart). They’re dressed in black, standing or seated on a turntable, their shadows projected on the bare back wall. The turntable rotates slowly, and their expressionless faces and rigid profiles go in and out of view. It’s an arresting image in black and gray, tense to the breaking point with anticipation.

And “breaking point” is what you’ll get.

Jamie Lloyd’s stark, severe, stunning production of Ibsen’s masterpiece does what is rarely done in the theater—that is, make you see a classic anew. As he did with Rostand’s Cyrano last year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, he puts a revered play on a bare stage with no scenery, unadorned by theatrical “concept”—only the actors themselves and their words—giving you the rare opportunity to discover a play again.

Arian Moayed and Jessica Chastain

Written by Henrik Ibsen, a fierce champion of the individual against a hostile society, A Doll’s House has been making history from the moment it saw light. As an early biographer of Ibsen wrote: “It exploded like a bomb into contemporary life” and was “pronounced a death sentence on accepted social ethics.”  Written in 1879, this revolutionary play—about a woman who leaves her husband and three children to find herself—caused a huge controversy. Because of its indictment of Norwegian society, it premiered abroad. In the case of the German premiere in 1880, the actress refused to perform the ending (“I would never leave my children!” she declared), so Ibsen had to substitute a milder conclusion. For a while the play was banned in Norway and parts of Britain, as well.

Over the decades, scholars, sociologists, and historians have continually reexamined the play, praised and promoted by feminists. The role of Nora has been played almost as often as Hamlet—by celebrated actresses including (in the past three decades) Juliet Stevenson, Janet McTeer, Gillian Anderson, Cush Jumbo, and Hattie Morahan. As recently as 2017, playwright Lucas Hnath gave us a sequel entitled A Doll’s House 2, set fifteen years after Nora famously slammed the door.

And now, after decades of revivals, director Lloyd stripped the play down to the essentials, with a fine ensemble headed by the radiant Jessica Chastain. You know the story (it’s a true one, inspired by a friend of Ibsen’s): Nora, a Norwegian mother of three, wife of an ambitious banker named Torvald (Arian Moayed), has a terrible secret that, once discovered, would threaten their lives and reputation. She has forged a promissory note and borrowed money from a disreputable businessman named Krogstad (Okieriete Onaodowan) to save her husband’s life when he was ill years ago. But now Krogstad is blackmailing her, saying that unless her husband retains his job at the bank, Krogstad will reveal her secret. But her husband has already given that job to Kristine (Jesmille Darbouze), Nora’s friend, who in turn urges Nora to let the secret be revealed. Nora is trapped—unsupported and alone, with no money of her own to pay back the loan and no ability to convince her husband to keep Krogstad at the bank. 

Okieriete Onaodowan and Jessica Chastain

Lloyd keeps the cast on the empty stage for the entire two hours, lurking in corners, hiding in shadows, always there watching (like the society that is judging Nora). Scenes are performed with one or two metal folding chairs on the turntable, while characters speak just above a whisper. In one of the threatening encounters between Nora and Krogstad, Lloyd has them seated back-to-back with Krogstad facing upstage, so we never see his face, but hear his threats as they are being registered on Nora’s frightened face. In another scene, these two characters are seated on the same seat, back-to-back. The effect is both mesmerizing and terrifying.

In this duet and others, as a result, Lloyd is exposing the explosive emotional and sexual tension that is buried beneath the surfaces of a rigid society where a woman cannot tell the truth and become herself; where power, money, and agency lie solely in the dominion of men.

These spellbinding two hours, fueled by Ibsen’s melodramatic plot of twists and turns, build to the breaking point—the famous final scene when Torvald discovers the truth and Nora, in turn, realizes that she must leave the marriage to find herself. Owing to the directorial choices that Lloyd has made, everything is magnified—especially Torvald’s dominant, rigid role of the husband (played by Moayed) who says he adores her but treats her like a child (or a little “songbird,” as Ibsen has him call her). As Dr. Rank, Torvald’s best friend and third character in a repressed love triangle (Rank worships Nora), Michael Patrick Thornton gives a tender, moving performance. Jesmille Darbouze is Nora’s friend Kristine who has her own struggles surviving as a working woman in a hostile society, and Tasha Lawrence is an empathetic Anne-Marie, a woman who gave up her own (illegitimate) child to be a nanny in Nora’s household. These female roles—Nora, Kristine, and Anne-Marie—represent three faces of a protofeminist struggle for agency in an unjust society.

Jessica Chastain

At the center of this melodrama (that literally turns and turns before our eyes) is the luminous Jessica Chastain, who gives a brave and believable performance as a woman who manages to turn her life completely around in two hours stage time. Her conflicted and ultimately courageous face shines through the darkness of that darkened stage (and the society it represents). Chastain’s Nora will be remembered for her beauty, simplicity, and painful vulnerability, portraying a challenging mix of contradictory emotions—anxiety, fear, longing, flashes of anger, and, finally, strength, conviction, and clarity. Needless to say, Lloyd gives her a stunning, memorable exit (no spoiler!)

Lloyd’s bold, fearless directorial choices emphasize the timelessness of Ibsen’s play—as the author must have hoped for. At the same time, the new adaptation used in this production has a sharply contemporary, colloquial aspect that is often distracting and works against the direction. Examples include Torvald addressing Nora frequently as “baby” (“You looked wiped out, baby!”) or “you little lunatic” or “you little nut.” Or “Good night, buddy” (Torvald’s last words to Dr. Rank). Or (about Kristine): “Oh my God, she’s so boring!” Or Nora’s exclamation: “I’m just bursting to say: ‘F*** it all!’” These jarring colloquialisms call attention to themselves, taking us out of the play and producing an unnecessary distraction. 

Ibsen is timeless—he doesn’t need to be updated, only translated. 

A Doll’s House. Through June 10 at the Hudson Theatre (141 West 44th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues). 

Photos Courtesy of: A Doll’s House

Cover: Jessica Chastain and Okieriete Onaodowan – Photo by Emilio Madrid