Review: The Gamm's masterful Doll's House

A matter of trust
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  January 26, 2011

There have been other plays well worth seeing this season, but nothing like this masterpiece at the Gamm. And I don't mainly mean the classic by Henrik Ibsen itself, since A Doll's House in shaky hands can come across as shrill and lesson-laden.

No, it's this remarkable production, directed by Trinity's Fred Sullivan Jr. and infused by powerful, illuminating performances. It is the sort of experience that theater was designed to achieve but can rarely accomplish.

The Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre is staging A Doll's House through February 20.

The setting for us is 1959 America, a time carefully chosen for being toward the end of the Eisenhower years of stalwart Republican propriety and before the Kennedy years of hope and alternate possibilities. The social and political context is crucial, because the culminating speech of Nora Helmer (Jeanine Kane), who has been playing house nicely with equally oblivious husband Torvald (Steve Kidd), is a clear-minded, definitive feminist declaration of independence that would have been appropriate in many periods, in many societies, before the successful feminist upsurge of 1960s America.

To move a play originally set in 1879 Norway to the America of 80 years later reveals more than that the more things change the more they stay the same. A hypervigilant social paranoia is overlaid on a milieu that was only potentially that extreme. Late 19th-century upper- and middle-class Europeans worried excessively about who they could trust, which meant being categorically mistrustful of those of a lower class. There was the cult of the gentleman, who was by definition honorable. How that translated into practice was that the appearance of being honorable — having an impeccable reputation — meant everything.

How that plays out in Ibsen's morality tale is that any social or legal indiscretion of these people had to be kept secret at all costs. Not only were the sins of the father visited upon the sons, but such sons, nevermind fathers, could never again be trusted, no matter how beatifically they behaved to redeem themselves.

Nora has committed such an indiscretion in the past, something strictly speaking illegal but done out of kindness, without harmful consequences to others. At first the only person who knows this is Nils Krogstad (Tony Estrella), a disgraced lawyer now working in a menial position at Torvald's bank. Some time ago, Nora had borrowed money from him to pay for a vacation to save the health of her husband, who had a nervous breakdown. Krogstad, about to be fired, reluctantly threatens to reveal Nora's dishonorable act to her husband unless she makes sure he keeps his job.

The other main characters involved are Dr. Rank (Tom Gleadow), a jovial family hanger-on who is in love with Nora; Kristine Linde (Rebecca Gibel), an impoverished old school friend and new confidante of Nora, who is promised Krogstad's job. The longtime family maid Helen (Joan Batting) serves as a reminder of personal devotion. Kane real-life daughters, Brigid and Fiona, briefly come in as Nora's children.

Adapted by artistic director Estrella from six translations, this version flows well and sounds comfortably colloquial. The only non-contemporary aspect, besides the Helmers having a servant, is all the hysteria over reputations. (Today these characters would write profitable confessionals about their disgraces and work the morning talk shows.)

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