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Vol. LXV, No. 32
Wednesday, August 10, 2011
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DELUSIONS OF MARRIED LIFE: Torvald (Jack Berenholtz) teases his wife Nora (Jenny Grace), treating her as a child as she carries on her role-playing and her secrets, in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.”

PST Presents a Portrait of a Marriage and Its Destruction; Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” Closes 2011 Season With Intensity

Donald Gilpin

Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, on its debut in Denmark in 1879, sent shock waves throughout Europe and set the world of drama on a new course. Acknowledged as the inventor of modern drama, Ibsen brought to the stage a focus on big, controversial ideas — in this case the institution of marriage and the role and rights of women — along with a certain realism, depth of characterization, and an interest in psychology and the complexities of human motivations and behavior.

Often seen as a feminist play, A Doll’s House portrays a woman trapped in a “doll’s house,” a model marriage in which she plays the traditional subservient role of wife and mother. But the play goes further to ask fundamental questions about the nature of marriage and the duty of women and men to find and fulfill themselves in marriage and in life. Ibsen rejected the embrace of the women’s movement of his time and declared, “My task has been the description of humanity.”

A strong Princeton Summer Theater troupe, in its final show of the 2011 season at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus for one more weekend, takes on this challenging material with intelligence, talent, and high commitment. The results are positive throughout — with a number of particularly brilliant moments. Despite the occasionally creaky plot contrivances, the three-hour length, filled with lots of talk and ideas but little physical action, and some unevenness in performance, the proceedings hold the audience’s attention. The final half hour is riveting, as the protagonist Nora discovers herself and all the characters learn certain truths about their lives and their loved ones.

A Doll’s House, in this translation from the Norwegian by Rolf Fjelde, is definitively set in its particular upper middle class world of the late nineteenth century. Society, the business world, marriage and relationships between men and women have obviously changed significantly in the past 130 years, but this production, directed by Kelvin Dinkins Jr., wisely makes no conspicuous attempts to modernize costumes, set, dialogue, or the actions of its characters. The play needs no such embellishments to readily transcend the particulars of its historical context.

The marriage of Torvald (Jack Berenholtz) and Nora (Jenny Grace) certainly illustrates an extreme example of a dominant, condescending, unenlightened husband and a child-like, infantilized, over-protected. and overly dependent wife (not many women skipping around these days acting like “little squirrels” and “sweet songbirds” for their husbands’ pleasure). Women have certainly made many breakthroughs in the home and in the workplace. But the portrayal of husband and wife, both blinded by illusions about themselves, their spouses and their marriage; the inequities and imbalances that lead to frustration and deceit; Nora’s struggle to communicate honestly, to achieve independence. and to discover who she really is — these issues resonate strikingly today as they certainly did in 1879 and in many revivals of A Doll’s House since then.

Also particularly timely are the economic concerns and the financial problems that loom over all the characters: a tightly constrained household budget, finding funds for crucial medical care, debt, unemployment, layoffs, ethics in the workplace, the corrupting influence of money, and the devastating effects of poverty.

Ibsen, with his plethora of ideas and discussion and his dearth of physical action, often appeals more to readers and scholars than to theater practitioners. It’s difficult to bring this serious material to life on stage for a contemporary audience unaccustomed to the need for so much close listening, but this well-rehearsed PST ensemble delivers these characters and their struggles to the viewers with clarity and focus, and provides an entertaining evening, despite a pace that occasionally drags.

A Doll’s House takes place in the living room of the residence of Nora and Torvald Helmer over a two-day period from Christmas Eve until the night of the day after Christmas. Torvald looks forward to his promotion to the job of local bank manager, and Nora hopes to finally acquire enough money to pay off a debt she has secretly incurred by forging her father’s signature. As the action proceeds, in this carefully constructed drama of retrospective analysis, individuals and issues from the past arise to complicate Nora’s efforts.

First, Mrs. Linde (Claire Helene) a friend from Nora’s past appears. A strong, independent woman, a widow who has had to find work to support herself over the years, Mrs. Linde, in her maturity, austerity, and strength serves as a contrast and a role model to Nora.

Next to appear is Krogstad (Adam Zivkovic), a bank employee and Nora’s creditor, who pressures Nora to intercede with Torvald to help him keep his job despite his past misdeeds and the threat of imminent dismissal. A third figure, Dr. Rank (Christopher Beard), ailing older friend and admirer of Nora, further complicates Nora’s life and delivers a grim presentiment of his death.

The plot strands interweave and the tension mounts during the two-day time span of this play. Mrs. Linde and Krogstad turn out to be former lovers. Rank declares his feelings for Nora as his death approaches. Finally in the closing scene of the play, Nora realizes her disappointment with her husband, herself, and her life, and the full truth of the past emerges to bring Nora and Torvald to their climactic confrontation followed by Nora’s famous exit and the slamming door that, in 1879, reverberated throughout Europe. “We’ve been married now eight years,” Nora tells her husband. “Doesn’t it occur to you that this is the first time we two, you and I, man and wife, have ever talked seriously together?”

Mr. Zivkovic’s Krogstad — well dressed, articulate, and thoroughly convincing — almost steals the show. Does our current economic climate make us particularly sympathetic to a man who, after many years of financial struggles, is about to lose his job? A formidable antagonist, demanding that Nora help him, threatening to reveal her past offenses, this Krogstad is utterly smooth, persuasive, and sympathetic in pleading his case and winning over the audience.

Mr. Berenholtz’s Torvald, owner of many unpleasant Victorian era gender biases and declaimer of many of Ibsen’s most dated stereotypically sexist pronouncements, is a powerful, credible figure here — dapper, decisive, at times even likeable, or at least sympathetic, and full of energy — a superb performance in a difficult, thankless role. Ms. Helene creates a memorable Mrs. Linde in her wise austerity, determination and strength of character.

In the demanding central role, Ms. Grace’s Nora is charming and richly varied in her demeanor. The range of emotions she experiences and the transformation that takes place through the three acts of the play, but especially in the final act as she decides to take control of her life and leave her husband and children, present formidable difficulties for any actress, and most of the great actresses of the past century have taken on that challenge with varied success. This actress, along with her character, definitely comes into her own in the final act, and Ms. Grace presents a strong, articulate, and sympathetic Nora. Earlier in the play, her interactions with her husband and others, in her babyish, flirtatious, high-voiced, blinking-eyed little squirrel mode, complete with coos and squeals and girlish giggles around, go over the top. They become distracting in and of themselves and to the eventual discovery, establishment, and development of her character. After the frivolous, whimsical Nora of the first act, it’s hard to believe the complete transformation into the purposeful, serious iconoclast of the finale.

Mr. Beard’s Dr. Rank is a curious, interesting figure, but appears all too youthful and healthy in the role of this sick, deathward-drifting older man. The Rank-Nora-Torvald subplot drags in the later stages of the play and seems to contribute little to the central characters and their conflict.

Kathryn Rickman as the concerned maid and Katherine Grant-Suttie as the sympathetic children’s nurse, formerly Nora’s nurse, provide strong, convincing support, with David Bevis contributing an act-one walk-on as delivery boy.

The top-notch production crew, led by technical director/set designer Jeff Van Velsor, has successfully created the world of this play for the Helmer family to inhabit. Mr. Van Velsor’s well-appointed, affluently furnished unit set, with huge pot-bellied stove on stage left and a long oblique back wall providing doors opening to Torvald’s study, to the outer hall and to other rooms of the house, effectively depicts Nora and Torvald’s domain and sets up the ensuing action. Chris Gorzelnik’s realistic lighting and Teresa Bayer’s appropriate period costumes complement the characterizations and the proceedings.

From Stephen Sondheim’s sardonic musical views on love in Into the Woods and Neil Simon’s whimsical glimpse of marriage right after the honeymoon in Barefoot in the Park, to Christopher Durang’s wacky perspectives on the eccentricities of humans and their relationships in Beyond Therapy, it seems fitting that Ibsen’s classic tragedy, with its intense, tragic depiction of marriage, would have the last word. A Doll’s House presents a suitably impressive finale to the PST 2011 season for this young, serious, ambitious, and talented Princeton Summer Theater company.

Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” runs for one more weekend, August 11-14, Thursday to Saturday at 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m., at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Call (609) 877-5596 or visit for tickets.

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