Saturday, February 10, 2018

Cloverdale Playhouse: "A Doll's House"

Disclosure: the reviewer is a member of the Board of Directors of The Cloverdale Playhouse.

The Cloverdale Playhouse opened its 7th Season -- "A Season of Game Changers" -- with a provocative production of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's classic A Doll's House. Though Ibsen insisted his play was not a feminist tract (rather it was about "humanity") from its 1879 Copenhagen production to today much of the critical focus and stage performances around the world have been on the central character Nora's breaking with tradition in her quest to be regarded on an equal footing with men both in marriage and in the greater society.

The risk Nora takes at the end of the play -- a watershed moment on how women were portrayed on stage -- shocked a patriarchal society who expected the stage to reinforce their standards. Fast forward to 2018 and the power of #MeToo and #TimesUp, and Nora's heartbreakingly courageous decision reflects an understanding that sexual harassment comes in various guises and that there is still a lot to be done to galvanize gender equality.

Director Caroline Reddick Lawson's passion for the play recognizes "that 2018 is the perfect time for as revival of A Doll's House"; and though there have been several memorable productions over time, and contemporary playwrights Theresa Rebeck and Rebecca Gilman have given Ibsen's play a contemporary spin and Lucas Hnath's masterful A Doll's House, Part II continues Ibsen's story some 15-years later, Ms. Lawson has chosen to stage a new version by Irish playwright Frank McGuinness, a translation whose language is accessible to contemporary audiences.

Staged on J. Scott Grinstead's detailed "dollhouse" set, and with Danny Davidson-Cline's character driven period costumes, audiences are transported to 19th Century Norway at Christmastime in the seemingly idyllic home of Torvald [John Selden] and Nora Helmer [Sarah Adkins]. -- They are an attractive and loving couple with three children. Torvald is about to get a promotion at the bank and is focused on his reputation, insisting on complete honesty at all times; she is a charming and vivacious spendthrift with a deep secret that ultimately comes to light and pushes their relationship to its catastrophic end.

Complications intrude this dollhouse world, and Nora is not the only one with a secret: Torvald's friend Dr. Rank [Christopher Crockett] secretly loves Nora and is suffering from a disease that will end his life soon; Nils Krogstad [Michael Buchanan] keeps Nora's secret through bribery, and attempts to clear his name of past actions; Nora reveals her secret to her long absent friend Kristine's [Mariah Reilly] and secures her friend's confidence. -- But all these secrets are destined to be exposed.

The ensemble acting is strong and credible. Mr. Crockett is sympathetic in the role of a man misunderstood by both Torvald and Nora, and whose pride keeps him from revealing anything personal. -- Mr. Buchanan's sinister demeanor initially reviles us; yet, his concerns for his family and reputation are more passionately human than Torvald's robotic ones, and his change of heart, brought about by re-invigorating a past relationship with Kristine, saves him from complete villainy. -- The understated complexity that Ms. Reilly brings to Kristine is admirable: she assuredly assumes the role of confidante to Nora, while quietly cajoling her to be honest with Torvald; and her ability to deal with real-world problems as a go-between for Nora and Krogstad is convincingly conflicted.

Ibsen puts Nora at the center of almost every scene, placing great demands on the actress playing this now iconic figure. All the action revolves around her, and Ms. Adkins imbues her portrayal with an honesty and grounding that impresses throughout. She can be flirtatious and coquettish, and yet switch to disarming introspection. Her frustration with the cards dealt to her is matched by her determination to become her own person. Her selfless devotion to husband and children is countered by a selfish need of attention and compliments. We witness Nora's gradual understanding of her position over the play's three acts [with one intermission], as Ms. Adkins subtly adjusts her physical demeanor and vocal range to support the changes in Nora's life: one scene in which she frantically rehearses a tarantella to distract Torvald from finding out her secret contrasts with a later one in which she removes her gypsy costume's corset, symbolically unbinding herself from the lies and deception of the past.

It is important that audiences believe that Torvald loves his wife, no matter how passive-aggressive he is in frequent references to her in diminutive terms ["little songbird", "dove", "doll", "child"], and no matter how condescending Mr. Selden seems with instructing her behavior, his male privilege blinds him to Nora's needs. But she, too late, admits her complicity in bending to his will and subjugating her own desires to his. When Nora demands that they finally have a serious conversation, their first one in an eight-year marriage, the realizations on both of them are devastating. -- Both Ms. Adkins and Mr. Selden achieve the necessary responses to their new-found honesty with one another: his in assessing his responsibility for the break-up of their marriage, hers in the knowledge that her independence, though necessary, comes at a cost.