What would make a woman leave her husband and three small children?
The reason that Nora gives in “A Doll’s House” shocked audiences when Ibsen wrote his play in 1879, and the final scene still rivets in an adaptation by famed Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman entitled “Nora,” currently in a competent if only intermittently engrossing production directed by Austin Pendleton at the Cherry Lane:
“You have responsibilities toward your husband and your children, haven’t you?” Torvald Helmer tells his wife.
“I have other responsibilities that are equally important,” Nora replies.
“No, you don’t. What responsibilities might they be?”
“Responsibilities toward myself.”
A woman leaving her husband these days is unremarkable, but a mother abandoning her children still gets our attention. This is one reason why some may question an adaptation that eliminates all of Nora’s children, as well as all the servants, including Nora’s childhood nursemaid Anne, who gave up the care of her own child in order to tend to Nora’s. The omission of this scene, which highlights Nora’s sheltered upper class background and arguably her selfishness, alters the complexity of the drama.
On the other hand, Bergman’s intent in his 1981 adaptation was to streamline Ibsen’s play in order to get to its essence. “A Doll’s House” has 11 characters and, as presented in a production at BAM last year for example, ran nearly three hours (including intermission.) “Nora” has just five characters and, in the Cherry Lane production, lasts about half as long (without an intermission.)
This seems better suited to the casual contemporary theatergoer (even if it causes a few awkward transitions between scenes.) In addition, the English translation by Frederick J. Marker and Lise-Lone Marker, which has been used in productions of “Nora” around the country for nearly two decades, is the best thing about the adaptation. No longer are we subjected to Torvald’s overbearing endearments (sample “A Doll’s House” translation: “Is that my little lark twittering out there? Is it my little squirrel bustling about?”) We get the idea of his patronizing attitude just as clearly but more subtly and credibly. (There’s only one weird lapse, when Nora tells her friends she’d like to tell her husband to “Kiss my arse.”)
Of course, streamlining the cast puts more pressure on the remaining performers. All are fine in this production; none are consistently thrilling. One senses Pendleton’s decision to keep this a low-key affair, with a touch of elegance added by Theresa Squire’s period costumes, and Harry Feiner’s solid, naturalistic lighting and set.
It says something that, of the 15 scenes in “Nora,” only two stand out. One is the famous final confrontation between husband (Todd Gearhart) and wife (Jean Lichty), when Nora has come to a realization about the emptiness of their marriage. She has just seen how selfishly Torvald reacted to the revelation of a potential financial scandal that Nora inadvertently caused by her effort years earlier to raise money secretly in order to restore her husband back to health. But the second terrific scene is between two supposedly secondary characters – Nora’s friend Christine (Andrea Cirie) and Nora’s blackmailer Nils (Larry Bull.) Christine and Nils, it turns out, were in a relationship years before, one that Christine cruelly cut off because Nils was impoverished and Christine felt she needed to marry somebody with the means to support her widowed mother and her two brothers. Now a widow herself, Christine makes a double-edged proposal, which is mostly practical, and maybe a little mercenary, but hints at a buried hope of actual love between two characters who have become less than savory. It’s a fascinating, complicated scene, well navigated by two pros, understated but full of feeling, that says as much as any of the better-known scenes between the two main characters about the status of women in society.
Click on any photograph by Carol Rosegg to see it enlarged
Cherry Lane Studio Theater
Adapted from Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”
By Ingmar Bergman
Translated by Frederick J. Marker and Lisa-Lone Marker
Directed by Austin Pendleton
Cast: Larry Bull, Andrea Cirie, Todd Gearhart, Jean Lichty, George Morfogen
Harry Feiner, lighting and set designer
Theresa Squire, costume designer
Ryan Rumery, sound designer
Patricia Fletcher, dialect coach
Shelley Senter, movement consultant
Kelly Ice, Production Stage Manager
Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission
Nora is scheduled to run until December 12, 2015