Hillary Clemens in “A Doll’s House.” (Mike Tsai)
And so, in the end, Nora just did it. She gathered her things, told her husband goodbye, and slammed the door on her way out.
In so doing she left not only her spouse, but two young children and an upper middle-class life that came with all the requisite bourgeois benefits. She also made history. It was shocking in 1879, when Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House’ was first performed. And it remains, unfortunately, a relevant commentary on the status of women in “civilized” society, despite what seems to be a steady march towards gender equality. Everywhere we see women in what once were traditional male roles — news anchors, bankers, cops, soldiers, doctors, politicians.
Yet, the question Ibsen raised remains: To what extent are women defined by the status of their male spouses? More to the point in 2019, the attempted subjugation of women by male politicians who would have the final say on what women can and can’t do with their bodies is stronger than ever.
The Kansas City Actors Theatre production of “A Doll’s House,” directed and adapted by Darren Sextro, is remarkable — true to the Ibsen original but imbued with a contemporary sensibility both in the performances and in the staging. Working with an expert cast and design team, Sextro brings this material to life in a production that blows away any qualms a viewer may have about the potential for dullness in a 19th-century Norwegian parlor drama.
Worth noting is that Sextro worked mainly from an 1882 translation by Henrietta Frances Lord, a British feminist. Hers apparently was only the second English translation and the first written by a woman.
Refresher course: Nora Helmer (Hillary Clemens) is the wife of successful banker Torvald Helmer (Todd Lanker), who appears to be moving up in the world despite a bout of poor health a few years earlier. The play opens just prior to Christmas and Torvald lovingly chides Nora for her gift-buying, cautioning that debt and spending can only bring ruin. Indeed, the good life seems only a misstep away from catastrophe, at least in Torvald’s view. And Nora does indeed enjoy a very good life, with two beautiful children and supportive nanny named Anne Marie (Carla Noack), who does the actual work of raising them.
From this premise, Ibsen crafts a small universe of characters who enter her home one by one. Some are in a position to help her. At least one can trigger her fall from grace. They include Kristine Linde (Christine Schafer), an old acquaintance of Nora’s who is now a lonely widow in need of work and hoping that Torvald can find a position for her at the bank; Dr. Rank (Brian Paulette), a family friend suffering from deteriorating health who has such strong feelings for Nora that he can barely suppress them anymore; and Nils Krogstad (Tyler Alan Rowe), a bank employee with a shady past now struggling to rehabilitate his image.
In three acts the audience watches Nora gradually backed into a corner, undone by panic when her secret — that she once forged her father’s signature on a bank loan — is revealed. But the point isn’t Nora’s disgrace by committing financial fraud, an act she deemed necessary to restore her husband’s health. What matters is her observation of Torvald’s reaction — first rage, shame and dismay at a presumed loss of status, followed by patronizing relief when he realizes the public never needs to know.
Bottom line for Nora: Torvald treats her like a child and is incapable of seeing her as an adult, let alone his equal. So when Nora walks out, she turns her back on social status and financial security. By 19th century standards, she essentially throws herself to the mercy of the universe.
So the play still packs a punch, despite plotting that continually draws our attention to letters, mailboxes and the fate of yellowing bank documents.
Clemens as Nora commands our attention, shifting from “cute” flirtations with her husband to increasing desperation to final acceptance of reality. She finds opportunities for comic moments, one of the choices that gives this material a contemporary feel. It’s quite a balancing act. And I detected no false moments.
Lanker rises to the challenge of playing a profoundly unsympathetic character. Torvald is dense, presumptuous, condescending and arrogant. He does love Nora — or at least who he thinks she is. And when she makes her decision to leave, he literally can’t comprehend it. At last the audience is invited to feel a bit of compassion for the dolt and Lanker, to his credit, renders him recognizably human.
Schafer embodies Mrs. Linde with self-possessed dignity even as she confronts long buried emotions. Schafer is the kind of actor who makes even the slightest gesture interesting. All the performers in this show seem to ascribe to the aesthetic notion that less is more. Paulette, as the tragic Dr. Rank, plays his emotions close to the vest, delivering a finely crafted, subtle performance.
Most impressive of all is Rowe, who plays Krogstad with a directness that you rarely see. It’s as if he isn’t acting at all. He’s just Krogstad, sitting there having a conversation. But the intense feeling just below the surface is palpable. It’s an exciting performance — precisely because he doesn’t try to make it exciting.
As Ann Marie, Noack is unfussy and precise and finds opportunities for the occasional comic note. As the Helmer kids, Drew Squire and Aria Rose Smith are effective and seem unintimidated by the powerhouse talent surrounding them.
Sarah Oliver’s costumes — especially the women’s dresses — are impressive. The rest of the design team — Shane Rowse (lighting), Kelli Harrod (sets), David Kiehl (sound) and Bill Christie (props) contribute to a sharp-looking production.
Note: In October Sextro will direct “A Doll’s House, Part 2” by Lucas Hnath at the Unicorn Theatre with the same design team. The play is set 15 years after the events of Ibsen’s play.
“A Doll’s House” runs through Aug. 25 at City Stage at Union Station. Call 816-235-6222 or go to www.kcactors.org.