by JK Clarke
A double-header of Scandinavian 19th century dramas would ordinarily be less than enticing to anyone but ardent fans of classical theater, as it would be a daunting undertaking. But the two productions, Henrik Ibsen’s classic A Doll’s House and August Strindberg’s excellent The Father playing in repertory through June 12 at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn transcend the heaviness often associated with these plays. They feel more accessible and tailored to a wider audience than ever, thanks to dual outstanding lead performances in both pieces by John Douglas Thompson and Maggie Lacey. Under the capable direction of Arin Arbus, Thompson and Lacey storm through both masterworks with an intensity and passion that elevate them far above all other elements of the productions.
A clever staging of two plays by rival playwrights in repertory (and for which the company requested that they be reviewed in tandem) for the first time ever in English-language by TFANA artistic director Jeffrey Horowitz, the core subject matter is the emancipation of women and the emergence (in Scandinavia in the 19th century anyway) of women as thinking, feeling and independently acting beings. Women who are finally, for better or worse, standing up for themselves and asserting their rights.
In the better known of the two, A Doll’s House (this version adapted by American playwright Thornton Wilder), a young wife, Nora (the intense and dynamic Maggie Lacey), has borrowed money to help pay for her husband’s medical treatment. But, in doing so, under the strict regulations of the time, she has committed fraud in the process—a very scandalous and serious matter in that era. Her husband, Thorwald (the always remarkably adept John Douglas Thompson), meanwhile, has just been promoted to a prominent managerial position at his bank, ensuring their material comfort for the coming years. Childlike Nora is excited, buying knick-knacks for Christmas (and macaroons for herself, which she hides about the house, almost like an alcoholic), much to the teasing chagrin of penny-pinching Thorwald. Nils Krogstad (Jesse J. Perez), a bank employee Thorwald is in the midst of firing for malfeasance is the banker from whom Nora has secured her loan, and he has become aware of her missteps, which he threatens to expose. Meanwhile, Christina (played with charming confidence by Linda Powell), Nora’s less fortunate childhood friend, has just arrived in town, newly widowed. She happens to be Krogstad’s old lover, so Nora endeavors to have her convince Krogstad not to expose her fraud, especially to Thorwald. Despite the threat ultimately being quelled, Thorwald gets wind of it anyhow, and is enraged, telling his doting Nora that he cannot trust her. Her devotion and judgment undermined, she makes the drastic decision to leave her husband, home and children, striking out on her own—a bold, likely unsound decision, particularly for the era.
In The Father (in a new version adapted by David Grieg), marital conflict is also at the fore, but instead of a happy couple sidelined by good intentions gone bad, these two are already at loggerheads over their daughter’s future. Captain Adolph (John Douglas Thompson, confident, smart and authoritative) decides that his daughter should be sent to a college in the city. Laura (Maggie Lacey, considerably more intense, resolute and scheming in this play), whom Adolph suggests is given to romantic notions, wants their daughter to stay home and study art, despite suggestions that she has no natural talent. Sadly, Laura is not only resolute, but devious. Playing against the law of the land which gives her husband absolute rights to all familial decisions, she gaslights the Captain with the (apparently false) notion that he may not even be the father of their child. As a scientist (who may just happen to be on the verge of some very important discoveries, despite Laura preventing him receiving the materials he needs to complete his studies), he realizes it is impossible to determine paternity without absolute certainty, a problem he has had to confrontat the play’s open with a philandering soldier under his command. Laura suggests he may not have even the paternal right to choose his daughter’s destiny, a notion that begins to drive him crazy. In a household where all members but the Captain (a resolute atheist) are deeply religious, faith is juxtaposed against science, and once he is presented with the doubt of his paternity, he is incapable of mustering the necessary faith to believe his wife when she ultimately insists her daughter is his as well. He goes mad and attacks them both. When she manages to arrange to have him committed to a psychiatric ward (as a means to further control him), he reaches his wit’s end, and breaks down (evoking, at one point, Shakespeare’s persecuted Shylock, asking “Don’t men cry? We have eyes? We have hands and arms, senses, thoughts and passions.”) and collapses dead of a stroke. Thinking that he finally accepted Christ as his final act, Laura is content.
The most compelling aspect of these two plays is that despite the acknowledgement that women in their societies were unfairly repressed and systematically denied equal rights, both Ibsen and Strindberg misogynistically saw equality as a complicated matter. Women, they seemed to feel—despite their obvious intelligence—were likely too hysterical to behave in a civil manner when it came to disputes and matters of law.
Adding to the tremendous, heart-rending performances of both Lacey and Douglas, was Susan Hilferty’s period costumes and Riccardo Hernandez’s sumptuous sets. Taking advantage of the venue’s remarkable versatility with a set almost like a basketball court, with seating rising like bleachers along the elongated sides of the stage, the audience is treated to beautifully appointed Victorian rooms (a living room in one and an office in another) that they look down upon, voyeuristically. An appropriate perspective, as we are invading two households in conflict, watching over traumatic episodes that we ought not be observing. Walking away in both instances, we feel sorrowful, as if we’ve just witnessed the breakdown of a family unit that should otherwise have worked—if not for the injustices of laws, if not for the frailties of mankind.
A Doll’s House and The Father. In repertory through June 12 at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center (262 Ashland Place, near Flatbush, downtown Brooklyn). www.tfana.org
First Photo: Henry Grossman
All Other Photos: Gerry Goodstein