While it no longer packs the emotional punch of, say, Sophie's choice, Nora Helmer's decision to leave her marriage—and her children—to pursue her own happiness still resonates as one of the most thrilling denouements in theater. In A Doll's House, Henrik Ibsen daringly thwarted the social conventions of 1879 Copenhagen, challenging audiences to debate the character of a woman who, trapped in unhappy circumstances, finds her way out. In Nora, his 1981 adaptation of Ibsen's classic play, Ingmar Bergman pares down the cast and strips away scenes to better examine the cascade of forces that act on Ibsen's famous protagonist. In his streamlined revision, she emerges as a true prisoner of her household, but, more important, the extent to which she has been imprisoned within herself becomes frightfully apparent. While impeded by some problematic performances, Test Pilot Productions nonetheless offers an admirable New York premiere of Nora, thoughtfully directed by Pamela Moller Kareman.
Beneath the arches of the ArcLight Theater, set designer Joseph J. Egan places Nora within a half-circle of ominous birch trees, where she remains—minus one quick costume change—for the play's entire 90 minutes. The other four characters sit along the circle's perimeter, filtering through the trees to enter for their scenes, but otherwise simply watching the action as it unfolds. (Interestingly, Bergman used a similar device in his 1991 direction of A Doll's House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.)
The omnipresence of these observers heightens the urgency of Nora's situation. Years earlier, she had borrowed money from Nils Krogstad to secure money for a trip abroad to benefit her husband Torvald's precarious health, forging her deceased father's signature on the promissory note. Now, Krogstad, whose bank job is in jeopardy, threatens to tell Torvald the truth—unless, of course, Nora can persuade her husband, newly promoted at the bank, to let Krogstad keep his job.
Backed into a corner, Nora unsuccessfully pleads with Krogstad, enlists the empathy of her long-lost friend Mrs. Linde, and considers how she might procure money from family friend Dr. Rank. Throughout, Torvald's cloying, patronizing treatment of his wife becomes more and more evident, building to their final—and powerfully realized—confrontation.
Ibsen's fully drawn characters resonate with both positive and negative traits, and Carey Macaleer finds the contrasts in Nora, deftly portraying her selfishness, vulnerability, and steeliness. Her high, chirpy voice belies her inner torment, and one can see how she is, as she describes herself, "not happy, only cheerful." It's a subtle difference, but one she plays well.
The other actors, unfortunately, are less successful in developing fully resonant characters. While perhaps limited by an abbreviated script, Troy Myers, as Torvald, is overly stiff, monotonous, and lethargic in his delivery. A more complex performance from this unsympathetic character would certainly give Nora's final decision more credence.
Sneering and gesticulating with abandon, John Tyrrell overplays the villainous Krogstad. And although Sarah Bennett and Tyne Firmin show welcome restraint as Mrs. Linde and Dr. Rank, respectively, neither has enough stage time to leave much of an impression.
But it is, after all, Nora's show, and this production is most notable for the attention paid to her journey. Matt Stine's original music underscores her thinly disguised manic state with taut intensity; in well-executed transitions, hauntingly and thoughtfully revealed by David Pentz's lighting, we watch Nora fall apart as she acts out her anger. These episodes reveal a woman whose real, serious emotions are perilously locked away.
To walk out on one's husband is far from scandalous by today's standards, but the struggle between Nora and Torvald—provoked by issues of money, integrity, and power—feels all too familiar. In a recent New York Times column, Judith Warner addressed the death of Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique) and the failure of our society to fully realize her ideals. "We women have, in many very real ways, at long last made good on Ms. Friedan's dream that we would reach 'our full human potential—by participating in the mainstream of society,' " she writes. "But, for mothers in particular, at what cost? With what degree of exhaustion? And with what soul-numbing sacrifices made along the way?"
Nora's life, as rendered by Ibsen and Bergman, certainly registers as "soul-numbing," and the play offers an important glimpse into the first murmurs of the feminist movement, which, it would seem, is still in need of further advancement. While Nora's words might often sound antiquated to our ears, much of it is all too familiar. "No one sacrifices his honor for love," Torvald tells his wife, who replies, "Thousands of women have." Watching Nora march out that door yet again, it's still difficult to imagine exactly where (or when) she might find true happiness and fulfillment.