Director Kathryn Chase Bryer’s bold staging of A Doll House—beginning with the alternative translation of the traditional title of this classic by Henrik Ibsen—transforms a 19th-century firebrand of a play into a relevant 21st-century one.
The latest offering from the University of Maryland School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies at the Kogod Theatre at The Clarice takes the play, which premiered in December 1879 to much controversy, into the ‘Me Too’ era of relevance today, marked by the casting of all women-identified actors. At most points, the actors succeed wonderfully, except when they do not.
Set in Norway over the yuletide season, A Doll House urges us to follow the domestic drama of the bourgeois family of Nora and Torvald Helmer, who are in high holiday spirits over the appointment of Torvald to the prestigious and lucrative position of bank manager. A play that bristled with the drama of class inequity and the role of women in the late 1800s, and that under a lesser hand could easily fall into the yoke of melodrama today, demands attention as Nora, played by Des’ree Brown, commands the stage. Nora has borrowed money that if discovered could be her husband’s downfall—and hers—and all eyes are on her.
Nora preens over her husband, cajoles him, flatters him—and she dances a wild, tambourine-smacking tarantella for him, releasing her energy and guilt into one bring-down-the-house moment by Brown. The challenge for this production becomes that Brown dominates—emotionally and physically—Torvald (played by Beth Rendely). One wishes that this overly-solicitous, diminutive Torvald had some of the backbone of Nora to balance out this production.
Providentially, a worthy counterpart to Nora arrives with her long-lost friend, the widow Kristine, played by Abigail Olshin. Her portrayal of quiet strength is a match on every level to the lead actor. In addition, Dr. Rank, the family’s close friend, is performed here with sensitivity and complexity by Edima Essien. One of the most convincing performances is given by Emma Bailey, diving into the role of the striving, malicious moneylender Krogstad who redeems himself through love.
Alas, love can not save Nora and Torvald’s relationship and the ultimate scene in which Nora declares her freedom is carried by the senior theatre arts major. She is a force that no man (even played by a woman) can reckon with in this play, and one suspects many more in the future.
The scenic design is a sophisticated setting of middle-brow indulgence set off by a grand piano by Scenic Designer Rochele Mac. Costumer Designer Yi Lin Zhao has selected the right mix of flowing dresses for Nora and menswear for the other characters to sweep us seamlessly in the play. One major highlight of the production is the sound designer and composer Roc Lee’s work which, with the exception of the tarantella and the intermission pieces, is all original music. Lee’s music, inflected with a contemporary yearning, perfectly sets the mood.
This production of A Doll House offers a riveting take on the classic work. The directing, the staging, the music, and most of all, the talented cast carry the themes of the 19th century into the 21st century and makes them fresh—demanding of our attention once more.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including two intermissions.
A Doll House, presented by the University of Maryland School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies, plays through February 15, 2020, at the Kogod Theatre at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, 8270 Alumni Drive, University of Maryland, College Park, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 301-405-2787 or go online.