'Nora' - Revisiting a Doll's House

Todd Gearhart and Jean Lichty in Nora
(©Carol Rosegg)

Ingmar Bergman’s Nora, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, can be an immensely moving experience as it distills the original three act work into a taut 90-minute one-act drama.

Austin Pendleton’s new production that has just opened at the Cherry Lane Theatre enhances Bergman’s work. Pendleton’s staging turns the piece into a genuinely eerie domestic tragedy. The play unfolds on a handsome unit set from designer Harry Feiner that telescopes a 19th century drawing room and bedroom onto the stage. Feiner’s lighting cloaks the dark paneled space in shadows, and it’s in this marvelously atmospheric environment that members of the ensemble, when not central to the action, sit quietly observing the events of the play.

The story, of course, centers on Nora Helmer, a woman who, for much of her life, has been infantilized by men, first her father and then her husband, Torvald. At the same time, Nora has had to exert herself, her wits, and rudimentary sense of finance to keep her family together. In the latter instance, Nora, without Torvald’s knowledge, secured a loan in order to raise the money necessary for a recuperative trip to Italy when he was ill.

The sojourn abroad served its purpose, and as Nora begins a now-healthy Torvald is preparing to take an important bank position. Unfortunately, even as Nora celebrates the family’s good fortune, she discovers that her secret---and not simply that she borrowed money without her husband’s permission and knowledge---might be exposed because of the Torvald's success.

In his new position at the bank Torvald is making changes, and among them is firing Nils Krogstad, the man from whom Nora Borrowed. Krogstad resorts to blackmail to keep his job.

Bergman’s condensation of Ibsen’s original (and a fine, colloquial translation-adpatation by Frederick J. Marker and Lisa-Lone Marker) supercharge Nora’s plight, and with Pendleton’s conceit, the play becomes all the more uncomfortable; in this production, it does feel as if all eyes are on her every move.

It’s a recipe for a galvanizing revisitation to the piece, but the reality is that Nora only occasionally sparks to life because of a curiously idiosyncratic performance form Jean Lichty in the title role. One notices something amiss with the actress’ Nora from the moment th e play begins. Wisps of blonde hair flutter around the woman’s face. It’s almost as if Nora, who has scrimped, saved and connived, had forgotten to put it up properly. It’s a tonsorial gaffe that Todd Gearhart’s perniciously exacting Torvald would never have allowed.

Further, to indicate Nora’s distress and distraction, Lichty often resorts to cocking her head and staring at the floor, rarely looking her fellow performers in the eye. The result is that this Nora appears to have some sort of unusual social phobia. Again, it’s the sort of behavior that one feels would warrant a comment or reprimand from Torvald, who easily makes his will known on other fronts, from Nora’s extravagance to her wardrobe for a costume ball the couple attends.

Lichty does use her voice to terrific effect, and there are moments when she shifts into a lower register, which gives this Nora an interesting feral quality. This aspect of her performance serves her quite well as the woman squares off against Larry Bull’s no-nonsense and slightly oily turn as Krogstad. When Lichty’s voice goes into a higher register, it’s easy to see how this woman has swayed not only Gearhart’s dashing Torvald, but also the elderly Dr. Rank, an old family friend whom George Morforgen imbues with touching world-weariness and amusing late-life randiness.

The men’s work, as well as Andrea Cirie’s regal and beautifully modulated turn as Christine, an old school chum of Nora’s, who visits to ask a favor and ultimately becomes a confidante of the beleaguered woman.

Nora, like Ibsen’s original, ends with its heroine making a shocking--at least for the period--decision, and though Bergman’s script and Pendleton’s production send theatergoers on a speedy and intriguing collision course to it, it’s an uneven and never completely satisfying journey.

---- Andy Propst

Nora plays at the Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.cherrylanetheatre.org.