The University of Oregon picked a fine time to produce A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen’s groundbreaking feminist play that shocked the world for decades after its 1879 premiere.
The UO production conveniently occurs a couple months before Oregon Contemporary Theatre presents a recent “sequel,” A Doll’s House, Part 2, by Lucas Hnath. And this year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, giving American women the right to vote.
Is A Doll’s House still relevant, still compelling and even a bit shocking? You bet it is. In 2006, to celebrate the centennial of Ibsen’s death, it was the most produced play of the year around the globe. Not bad for a play written in Norwegian.
The plot of A Doll’s House is well known by theatergoers. Nora Helmer (Kendelyn Thomas), the pretty, seemingly frivolous wife of Torvald (Wolf Morgan-Steiner), a struggling lawyer who has just been made manager of a bank, finds herself in a desperate situation. Years earlier, she secretly borrowed money, using a forged signature, to pay for expensive medical care that saved her husband’s life.
The lender is Nils Krogstad (Diego Millan), an employee of the same bank. Torvald, knowing nothing of the loan, intends to fire Krogstad for his shady past, but the hapless employee is willing to disclose Nora’s forgery and cause a scandal that will ruin Torvald’s reputation.
By the end of the play, Nora realizes that Torvald loves his reputation more than he loves her, and instead of being his partner she is nothing more than his plaything, his doll wife, his possession.
The script used at the UO is the acclaimed 1996 adaptation by Irish playwright Frank McGuinness that played in London and on Broadway. In spite of the complexity of the plot and the depth of the characters, the dialogue is clear and easily comprehensible.
Thanks to the impeccable direction of Theresa May, the student actors are able to express waves of emotions without pushing this realistic drama into melodrama. Both their spoken dialogue and their body language are natural and convincing.
Thomas as Nora reveals her fears with subtle twinges, nausea and breathlessness. Morgan-Steiner as Torvald hovers over her, sometimes with menace, sometimes with condescending care.
Dr. Rank (Michael Johnsson), a daily visitor at the Helmer home, is ostensibly Torvald’s best friend, but secretly he loves Nora as he bravely wastes away from a fatal disease. Millan aptly reveals Krogstad’s intricacies. Life has beaten him down, and he doesn’t really want to be a villain.
Madeline Williams, as Nora’s impoverished childhood friend Kristine, is steady, practical and serves to show Nora that a woman can earn her own money with work.
The gorgeous period costumes are by Jeanette deJong. The lighting by Colleen Rooney gives a sense of gaslight and Nordic darkness. Jerry Hooker’s tasteful set design features window-like scrims through which the characters can see pedestrians out in the world while they are seemingly trapped inside this doll’s house.
While they glance out, we in the audience look in and observe their fascinating lives and complex psyches with wonder. Yes, the play is more than two hours long. No, you will never be bored.
Take time during intermission to examine the eye-catching lobby display about women’s rights worldwide. Most surprising is a large map showing when women gained the vote in each country. The dates range from 1893 (New Zealand) to 2011 (Saudi Arabia).
A Doll’s House plays at the University of Oregon’s Robinson Theatre through March 14; times and tickets through tickets.uoregon.edu/sons-prophet or 541-346-4363.