Arden Theatre Company presents Henrik Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’

Breaking down walls

A Doll's House continues to be relevant 139 years after Henrik Ibsen penned the controversial drama. The Arden Theatre Company's production of Simon Stephens's 2012 translation gives its Norwegian characters and situation modern accessibility without comment or compromise.

It's going to be a long night for Katharine Powell and Cody Nickell's Nora and Torvald. (Photo by Mark Garvin.)

The strength of Terrence J. Nolen's in-the-round staging is that we experience the story for what it is and are invited to draw our own conclusions.

In my experience, this isn't always the case. I've seen adaptations that twist the venerable play to underscore, elevate, or modernize Ibsen's feminist message. Most recently, Jo Stromgren Kompani's esoteric, physically exaggerated 2015 Philadelphia Fringe Festival version comes to mind. Stephens, who won the 2015 Tony Award for his adaptation of the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, smartly trusts Ibsen and us.

Warts and all

Nora, played with hyperactive vivaciousness by Katharine Powell, is still a childish ninny, not yet a feminist icon. Her husband Torvald (Cody Nickell) dotes affectionately on his "little hamster" and "little skylark."

Their nine-year, three-child marriage stays fresh because she happily embodies the childlike role defined by her husband, while he relishes his idealistic view of marriage as a sacred trust in which the man rules benevolently. "To lie in a family home," he lectures, "diseases it, contaminates it."

Nora's on edge because she has borrowed money without a man's permission, which women legally cannot do, and charms cash from Torvald to secretly pay the debt. She forged her late father's signature, but lender Krogstad (Akeem Davis) discovers her deception and will keep her secret only if she helps him regain his job at Torvald's bank. School chum Kristine (Becky Chong) finds Nora reckless: "You're still so much of a child," she scolds.

Ethical concerns outweigh the financial issue. Nora feels justified because the money allowed a restorative trip that saved Torvald's life, and her many lies supported that effort. How the story unfolds proves as suspenseful and gut-wrenching today as it was in 1879, though now we're rooting for Nora more than judging her.

Physically and emotionally moving

Jorge Cousineau's set, lit effectively by Solomon Weisbard, gives Nora space to roam and dance, and keeps us close to the action. Costume designer Olivera Gajic provides period veracity and dresses Powell in gowns that emphasize her sleek form without restricting her frenetic movement. Nickell's Torvald, monstrous by today's standards, plays sympathetically, as does Davis's complex Krogstad, normally reduced to a villain.

Scott Greer's Dr. Rank, the enigmatic family friend whose adoration cannot save Nora, emerges with touching insight. Emily Kleimo and Joilet F. Harris play family servants who unintentionally keep Nora trapped. Local boys Zach O'Connor and Benjamin Snyder are terrific as her rambunctious sons.

The ultimate conflagration between Nora and Torvald — in which she realizes that they've "never had a serious talk in nine years," which we can easily believe — is spectacularly genuine and messy. It culminates in the final moment that redefined theater as a social force in Norway and throughout the Western world. To the Arden's credit, though, A Doll's House plays not with historical reverence, but with immediate impact. 

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