A Doll's House

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday January 13, 2017

Andrea Syglowski and Sekou Laidlow in the Huntington Theatre Company's production of A Doll's House, directed by Melia Bensussen, playing January 6 - February 5, 2017, Avenue of the Arts/BU Theatre
Andrea Syglowski and Sekou Laidlow in the Huntington Theatre Company's production of A Doll's House, directed by Melia Bensussen, playing January 6 - February 5, 2017, Avenue of the Arts/BU Theatre  (Source:T. Charles Erickson)

The production of Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House" that Huntington Theatre Company has running now through Feb. 5 is adapted by British dramatist Bryony Lavery. "Adapted" is a good way to credit the work Ms. Lavery has done here: Her rendering is no mere translation, but a masterwork of nuance and language that avoids sounding stilted (as too many works in translation are wont to do) but also avoids unnecessary or artificial-sounding vernacular.

That delicacy of balance is also found in Melia Bensussdn's direction, and especially in the performance of Andrea Syglowski, who was so thrilling in "Venus in Fur" a few seasons back, also at the Huntington. Syglowski plays Nora, the play's central protagonist. Nora is no young girl; she and her husband Torvald (Sekou Laidlow) have been married for eight years, and she has two children. Despite this, she seems, at first to be altogether too girlish for her age; Nora is a spendthrift and trifling bon vivant who is free to pursue her own interests thanks to the long-time nanny (Adrianne Krstansky) she and her husband employ (a de facto mother figure, since she's the same nanny Nora grew up with). In the opening scenes, Nora gads around, burbling on about nothing, while Torvald lovingly tries to rein her in.

It's evident from the start that money is the one thing Nora is especially interested in, and we're meant to make the snap judgment that the reason for this is she likes pretty things and has no real idea of the value of a krone. Even when family friend Dr. Rank (Jeremy Webb) comes onto the scene -- and we suspect that he sees more deeply into Nora than Torvald does -- her effect is the same: Chipper, juvenile, and somewhat shallow.

Andrea Syglowski and Marinda Anderson in A Doll's House
Andrea Syglowski and Marinda Anderson in A Doll's House  (Source: T. Charles Erickson)

It takes the arrival of someone truly outside Nora's ordinary life -- Kristine (Marinda Anderson), a girlhood friend not seen for decades -- to coax Nora to open up and talk about something more meaningful than Christmas baubles and the gifts she's bought for Torvald and the children. As it happens, Nora has a fondly guarded secret: Years earlier, she borrowed nearly 5,000 kroner to pay for a trip to Italy to restore Torvald's health. She's allowed Torvald to believe all this time that she got the money from her father; in truth, she forged her father's signature to secure the loan and had been paying it back bit by bit all this time. Since neither law nor social custom will permit a woman to take out a loan on her own and assume the responsibility of paying it back, Nora takes a double pride in this; not only has she saved the life of her husband, but she's also entered the financial realm with just as much strength of character and reliability as any man.

This secret is the tip of a thread that the play tugs upon, and as Nora's years of dissimulation unspool with the arrival of a blackmailer (Nael Nacer), a stronger, smarter, and more confident version of herself gradually comes to the surface. It's a thrilling transformation and not an easy one to achieve: The script, while distinctly modern, retains a highly stylized theatricality, such that sudden and dramatic developments prompt improbably articulate and direct responses from the characters. In some ways, this allows for a frankness that audiences of 1879 (the year of the play's premiere) might have found shocking: There is plenty of sexual innuendo, and it's playfully done but unmistakeable. (At one point Nora talks about wanting to jump all over Torvald "like a squirrel,' and he's not shy about inviting her to follow through.)

In other ways, though, the play requires the actors to pull off some whiplash-inducing, and fairly fundamental, changes of their core beliefs and characters. Syglowski manages the trick without breaking a sweat -- she saves that for her almost comic episodes of panic as she seeks to prevent her husband from reading a letter sent by her blackmailer, one that will reveal the fib she's been hiding from him. (What could be more modern than a classic play that puts you in mind, however, briefly, of an episode from "I Love Lucy?")

Elise Rose Walker, Marinda Anderson, Gavin Daniel Walker, and Adrianne Krstansky in A Doll's House
Elise Rose Walker, Marinda Anderson, Gavin Daniel Walker, and Adrianne Krstansky in A Doll's House  (Source: T. Charles Erickson)

Bensussen's direction helps ground the play and keep it from either slipping into a torrent of emotionally unbelievable twists or flying off into the aether of Important Theater. What we see here, we feel, is true to life in ways that go beyond the text; this is meant to more than a feminist play, it's the story of a human being coming into her own and grasping the possibility, if not yet the full extent, of her own agency. Other quick and seismically fundamental shifts occur, too -- Dr. Rank is fatally ill, a situation he confirms on Christmas Day; two characters, having been previously entangles, renew a romantic spark with a briskness and spiritually rejuvenating alacrity that seems downright miraculous. Bensussen makes sure her cast keep a firm grasp on the material.

The design work pulls in the same direction. We're never meant to forget we're watching a play; the play, in this case, really is the thing, and the elements, artificial as they inherently are and are meant to remain, fall together into a collective accord. The scenic design by James Noone looks something like a doll's house, though a crudely made and furnished one; the walls have the same hue as burlap, and the structure seems almost barn-like, with an impressionistic sky placed, with red whorls, outside the windows. As the play progresses, the walls take on an inner glow that reveals the frame of the house; my plus one remarked that the set looks progressively more and more like a bird cage, as Nora awoke to the fact of her life-long infantilization at the hands of the men in her life.

The furniture has the slightly mismatched and disproportionate look of doll's house accessories. There's a lovely, elegant couch; there's a slightly outsized and much less elegant table; there are a handful of functional and only slightly ornate chairs. The mix of blocky and refined is effective.

So are the costumes, which are the work of Michael Krass. Everyone's wardrobes are slightly stiff and formal, with layering being a common motif; jackets and long-sleeved dresses and glowing skirts dominate, their cuts looking as though they fall in between eras; not quite Victorian, not quite modern.

Dan Kotlowitz provides dramatic, vivid lighting, while the original music -- by Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen -- create a deep, somber mood upon which to offset the play's flashier stylings in design and performance. This doll's house, you come to feel, is also a house of cards. The magic lies in how those cards fly, with precise conjuring, into a new and more honestly stable structure when it all comes crashing down on Nora and Torvald's pretty little heads.

"A Doll's House" continues through Feb. 5 at the BU Theatre. For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/2016-2017/a-dolls-house

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.