By Juan Ramirez, arts and entertainment columnist
The audience feels a quiet shockwave when Nora Helmer explains to her husband that she longs to understand society and must try to learn whether it—or her—is correct in its ways. In troubling times, not only must we, too, attempt to learn what is right, but we must learn to understand one another.
In Henrik Ibsen’s landmark play, “A Doll’s House,” is mounted by the Huntington Theatre Company in a sensational production that opened Wednesday night. The tension and turmoil do not feel as if they originated in 1879 Norway. Conversely, the aching of the put-upon woman, wife and mother reverberate through the present and into her—and our—uncertain future.
This is no time-capsule blast from the theatrical past, nor is it a radical reboot of an endlessly-performed play. In Briony Lavery’s translation of the Norwegian classic, the characters onstage seem detached from their time period but suffocated by their trappings, which haven’t changed much in the 100-plus years since their inception.
Striking the right balance between contemporary and formal, Lavery’s nimble phrasing is the perfect match for Andrea Syglowski’s Nora, who finds herself stuck in the middle of her past, present and future.
Married to the upwardly-mobile Torvald and comfortable, if uncertain, in her upper-middle class surroundings, Nora’s delicate farce of a life is shaken when a thorny decision she made years ago to save her husband’s life and status comes back to haunt her.
Carefully weaving through her life’s strains, Syglowski remarkably renders Nora as a woman who, not only keeps secrets from her husband and friends, but from herself. Sharp, manic laughs—or are they exasperated breaths?—punctuate her words and betray her status as a put-together wife, leaving a small but incredibly accessible window into the soul of someone who has given up their honor in favor of their spouse. Syglowski’s performance reaches so far beyond her character’s immediacy it almost suggests there are secrets about herself she might not even know. For Nora, in this particular moment, ambiguity has taken over.
For however richly Syglowski has drawn her leading lady, with her barely-stable demeanor ceding to nervous abandonment when alone, the cast around her fulfills its duty of buttressing what amounts to a towering study of a static life in sudden flux.
Only Nael Nacer as Krogstad, the bearer of bad news and the only other character whose being is at stake, matches her performance in intensity and disposition. These two people, whose destinies are as hazy as the transparent curtain that initially envelops the stage, are bulls in a doll house: Anxiously trying to fit into a standard of life they never quite understood.
James Noone’s sparse set design—a massive shell of a house against an undulating red and blue backdrop—emphasizes the fabricated nature of the Helmers’ home, constantly reminding us of the playpens we construct for ourselves. The whirly backdrop also brings to mind the work of another famed Norwegian, Edvard Munch, the angst-ridden artist best known for his revolutionary portrayal of existential despair, “The Scream.”
In creating this parallel, Noone seizes upon two individuals caught in the threshold of momentous invigoration, for better or worse. With richly blended shades of color bleeding into one another, Nora appears to have trapped herself among her ghosts.
What is most striking about this production, as deftly directed by Melia Bensussen, aside from its genius handling of race in casting its central characters, is its refusal to limit itself to one woman’s story. Though the play deals with the troubles faced by a late-19th century Norwegian housewife, the overarching longing for a better understood, more understanding world reaches far beyond the stage on which it is performed. Nora’s final moment, a harrowing declaration of autonomy against the status quo, is one we must all make, sooner or later.
“A Doll’s House” is in performance at the Huntington Theatre Company’s Boston University Theatre through Feb. 5.
Photo courtesy T. Charles Erickson, Huntington Theatre Company