Renowned as a proto-feminist classic, Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which made its debut in Copenhagen in 1879, is the subject of a radical new woman’s adaptation by Amy Herzog, now playing a limited Broadway engagement at the Hudson Theatre. Directed by Jamie Lloyd and presented by The Jamie Lloyd Company, the production employs a stark, stripped down, minimalist design to allow audiences to focus on the words and emotions of the groundbreaking domestic drama; even the iconic “door slam heard round the world” has been eliminated. The result is a modernist aesthetic with updated language that speaks to the issues of traditional gender roles and inequality and the need for women not to be willing participants in their own oppression, as in Ibsen’s controversial original.
The narrative revolves around Nora Helmer, a young housewife and mother of three, whose life has been defined first by her father, then by Torvald, her husband of eight years, both of whom have always treated her as their pretty little plaything – a role to which she has happily surrendered. Now that Torvald has been promoted and his income will increase, she can shop and entertain and her life will be perfect again, following a period of financial constraints he imposed upon her. But when his fired associate Nils Krogstad exposes the truth about a loan Nora secured fraudulently from him to finance a year in Italy to preserve her husband’s health (and which she has since been struggling in secret to pay off), Torvald’s enraged self-centered reaction to his wife’s selfless action triggers her realization that she is not happy in their marriage, or in her life. Nora makes the courageous decision to leave, so she can be free to find her true self, not the person her family and society at large expect her to be.
Performed on a bare stage with five wooden chairs and a turntable on which the cast of six rotates (scenic design by Soutra Gilmour), the actors, all dressed in simple contemporary black clothing (costumes by Gilmour and Enver Chakartash) relay the story without the use of props, illuminated by austere white light that casts dark shadows of the figures onto the unadorned walls and floor (lighting by Jon Clark), and supported by a soundscape (music by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto; sound design by Ben and Max Ringham) that evokes the increasingly tense mood. It’s all designed to underscore the timeless relevance of the theme, free from the historical context of Ibsen’s 19th-century setting.
Under Lloyd’s direction, the show, in addition to the minimalist abstraction of its design, references such modern elements as the mordant humor of Theater of the Absurd (with many of the lines and behaviors eliciting caustic laughs from the present-day audience), Neo-Expressionist movement and dance (dance choreography by Jennifer Rias), and overtly deliberate blocking (back to back, side by side, facing away from the audience and Nora, close to each other, or at a distance), which often make the production seem gimmicky, feel more like an intellectual exercise than a real-life human drama, and can be more distracting than would an authentic vintage staging in any chosen era.
With that said, the cast, led by Academy Award winner Jessica Chastain as Nora, embraces the select stylings and is fully committed to the distinctive portrayals of the troubled characters. Chastain emotionally, psychologically, and physically inhabits the thoughts, feelings, and actions of the increasingly aware woman, from the sardonic humor of her initial vanity and flirtatiousness, carefree attitude and childlike submissiveness, through the flowing tears, frenetic dancing, and growing consternation about the revelation of her well-intentioned fraud and deception, to the agonizing decision she ultimately makes and the freedom she is about to experience, as hope and the whole colorful world open up to her.
As Torvald, Arian Moayed is controlling and demeaning, calling her his “little bird” and “baby,” insulting her “extravagance” and taste for desserts, impassioned by her beauty, then exploding with anger when the letter from Krogstad informs him of her indebtedness and deceit. It’s a performance that exposes his authoritarian patronizing and thoughtless male ego, and prefigures the post-modern concept of toxic masculinity.
The supporting roles are also well delivered by Okieriete Onaodowan as the desperate soft-spoken threatening Krogstad, who betrays the confidence of Nora but then has a change of heart; Jesmille Darbouze as their long-time less privileged friend Kristine, who is responsible and self-supporting, recognizes Nora’s entitlement, petitions her to convince Torvald to hire her, and espouses the need for honesty in a relationship; Michael Patrick Thornton as the likeable Dr. Rank, Torvald’s terminally ill best friend, who is accepting of his fate, has a close and loving bond with Nora, and at last confides in her that his feelings go beyond platonic (and shows her what true caring is); and Tasha Lawrence as their nanny Anne-Marie, who dutifully and affectionately cares for their children (heard only as voiceovers) after giving up her own, causing Nora, who’s already thinking about it, to question what it felt like to walk away.
Classics are classic for a reason. Whether presented in the style of the period in which it was written or in a reimagined adaptation for our current times, the message of A Doll’s House comes through loud and clear in Nora’s voice: women are not dolls, we are human beings.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 50 minutes, without intermission.
A Doll’s House plays through Saturday, June 10, 2023, at the Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $58-397, plus fees), call (855) 801-5876, or go online. Masks are no longer required but are recommended.