In the latest adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s enduring classic, “A Doll’s House,” our protagonist Nora — Academy Award-winning actor Jessica Chastain — enters before the play’s start, remaining perched on a simple wooden chair. For over ten minutes, the chair — atop a turntable — orbits the Hudson Theatre’s stage where Chastain remains stoic and soundless, undisturbed by shuffling patrons and busy ushers. Even if she was allowed to move, there is neither set nor props to interact with; only a stack of similarly ligneous chairs and a projection of the date 1879 on the Hudson’s back wall. In this boldly envisioned, yet minimalistically executed production directed by Jamie Lloyd and adapted by Amy Herzog, silence and simplicity are constantly at play.
Lloyd and Herzog pare Ibsen’s three acts down to an intermissionless two hours, wisely lightening up the traditional length of “A Doll’s House.” They darken just about everything else. Their production adopts an ominous, haunting view of 19th-century Norway unified by the ensemble of actors’ monotone rendering of prose, shadows that dance along the proscenium theater’s back wall (lighting design by Jon Clark), a bare and icy set (designed by Soutra Gilmour) and morose costumes cloaked in the inkiest navy blue (costume design by Gilmour and Enver Chakartash).
The trimmed script still keeps Ibsen’s narrative intact. Nora Helmer remains our central figure. She is mother to young Ivar, Bob and Emma; wife to upwardly mobile Torvald (Arian Moayed); little else. Ibsen’s script prodded at the assumed gender roles that patronize and infantilize housewives — both the roles assigned by society as well as those adopted by its female subjects. Case in point, Torvald relentlessly condescends Nora, practically drooling as he refers to her as his “little bird,” but Nora is just as quick to dismiss and invalidate female autonomy. “Last Christmas I got a big copying job, I stayed up late writing every night for weeks. It was exhausting, but it was also fun, to work hard and make money! I felt kind of like a man.”
Nora reveals her (and thus, the play’s) major secret to her old friend Kristine Lende (Jesmille Darbouze), quietly delighting in Kristine’s affirmation that what she has done is as naughty as it sounds. Behind her husband’s back, the mischievous bird borrowed nearly $5,000 to afford a trip to Italy — a trip that saved Torvald’s life. Nora’s community believes her father loaned that money, but she divulges, “Papa didn’t give us a penny. I found the money.” Since women were not permitted to borrow money at the time, her secret eventually sours to shame and becomes a sin Nora is willing to die over. But Lloyd’s creative decision to rip Nora out of a distinct place or antiquated time period dissolves the play’s high stakes. In 2023, $4,800 cannot sustain two hours of dramatic tension.
Still, Lloyd rightfully keeps the faith in Chastain, charging her to be kittenish at times, deeply meditative at others. The subtle differences between both are proof of Chastain’s brilliance. Her performance — a majority of which she delivers glued to that chair — grows increasingly psychological as Nora’s secret eats away at her wellbeing. The emotional unraveling is thrilling to witness up close — I held on to every twitch of Chastain’s ginger eyebrow and every whisper of her voice — but I cannot imagine that same experience was had by anyone sitting closer to the back of the Hudson’s sprawling mezzanine. It does not help that Chastain’s interactions with the remainder of the cast — Tasha Lawrence as nanny Anne-Marie, Okieriete Onaodowan as lawyer Nils Krogstad, Michael Patrick Thornton as the family’s best friend Dr. Rank — are severely restrained. They take pauses where one expects mimed actions: interacting with children, checking mailboxes, etc. When Krogstad (also one of Torvald’s employees) threatens to expose Nora’s indiscretion, he puzzlingly does so to the back wall. Lloyd gives us such little theatricality in his renegade staging, that Ibsen’s words remain forefront. Unfortunately, those words read nowhere close to revolutionary. Sure, Nora’s actions express self-interest and a rebellious spirit, but in 2023, I’d prefer rage. Less Barbie doll, more Bride of Chucky.
Resurrecting a story that’s been famous for generations poses a risk — much of your audience already knows your ending and “A Doll’s House” is particularly famous for its finale. Torvald learns Nora’s secret, but does not offer to bear the brunt of public humiliation. “No man sacrifices his dignity for the person he loves,” he exclaims. “Hundreds of thousands of women have done that,” she retorts. After the storm of their fight, comes the calm. Or rather, the clarity. Nora breaks free from socio-political chains and leaves husband, children and home behind, metaphorically slamming the door on the way out. Lloyd architects a daring but delightful alternative to the slam which falls in step with his contemporary revamp. But in an ending consistent with the full mounting itself, Lloyd’s tight hold to his own minimalism leaves the text naked which —in the cold light of 2023 — dilutes the play’s central conflict and, consequently, its intrigue.
“A Doll’s House” opened at the Hudson Theatre on March 9, 2023.
Review Photo: Emilio Madrid
Creative: Written by Henrik Ibsen in a new version by Amy Herzog; Directed by Jamie Lloyd; With music by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto; Choreography by Jennifer Rias; Scenic design by Soutra Gilmour; Costume design by Gilmour and Enver Chakartash; Lighting design by Jon Clark; Sound design by Ben Ringham and Max Ringham; Production stage manager Frank Lombardi; Casting by Jim Carnahan Casting and Alexandre Bleau.
Produced by the Jamie Lloyd Company, Ambassador Theatre Group, Gavin Kalin Production and Wessex Grove.
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Arian Moayed, Jesmille Darbouze, Tasha Lawrence, Okierete Onaodowan and Michael Patrick Thornton with understudies Franklin Bongjio, Carey Rebecca Brown, Melisa Soledad and Jose Joaquin Perez.