A Doll’s House at the Cloverdale Playhouse

By on 8 February, 2018 in Kate and Stephen with 1 Comment

Last night we went to Cloverdale Playhouse to see the opening night of “A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen, the first play in the 2018 “Season of Game-Changers.”

But before that, we watched a couple of episodes of an existentialist Netflix cartoon called “BoJack Horseman,” about a washed-up sitcom celebrity who in the first episode of the first season tries to defend a low-brow comedy show by lowering expectations. “Hey, it’s not Ibsen,” he tells an interviewer.

Few things are Ibsen. This Norwegian playwright is considered to be a towering figure in the field of dramatic theater, and “A Doll’s House” premiered in 1879, the year Edison first ignited a light bulb, the year Einstein was born. If you think of all the ways the world has changed since that time, it’s amazing that a work of art could persist and remain so popular in our vastly different society.

What could a play of this vintage teach us today?

Plenty, as it turns out.

A dramaturgical note inserted in the program compliments a director’s note printed in the program, and both offer context about the contemporary milieu as it relates to the #MeToo movement. “A Doll’s House” is about patriarchy, domesticity and secrecy, and although a lot has happened since 1879, many social norms remain intact. We live in a culture where women often struggle to achieve parity with men in the workplace, let alone in the home. This play unpacks the drama in a single marriage to illustrate woes that are larger than those that exist in a single home – it’s a synecdoche that allows us to examine the ways that we come to accept repression, and the strategies available to throw that off.

When we meet Sarah Adkins’ Nora, she is glowing with the joy of Christmas, having just been shopping. She burbles around the house, playing every bit the “song bird” that her husband calls her. Her husband is Torvald, played by John Selden as a manipulative narcissist with a flat affect. When her old friend Kristine arrives, we learn that Nora has a secret she is keeping from her husband – a secret that comes to threaten their marriage itself.

Adkins and Selden occupy most of the stage time, and the overall cast is relatively small. The supporting parts are reliably played, and the villain of the piece, Michael Buchanan as Krogstad, is especially good. The dialogue is thick – Adkins in particular had to memorize a tremendous amount of lines, and she rises to the challenge of the play’s density. This particular production is a modern adaptation of Ibsen, so some of the writing has a modern feel to it, with plenty of neologisms. It makes the scenes familiar, but we found ourselves at times wondering what the play must have sounded like in its original translation. No matter – the dilemmas presented are classic and timeless, and the characters’ motivations come through clearly in the production.

“A Doll’s House” is a look at social norms and the constraints of patriarchy, debt, and family. Despite this weight, several moments got laughs from the audience. Overall, though, this is no comedy. This is a worthwhile look into some of the crushing stresses that almost all of us experience.

Adkins handles Nora’s range ably, going from near-lunatic mania to depressive whispering in a matter of moments, and she really holds down the center of the production with gravity and force of character. Her tones are melodic and carried well to the back of the house where we were sitting. Selden’s Torvald is substantially more sedate – at times, you do wonder what Nora sees in his near-robotic affect, but perhaps that’s part of the play’s point. Torvald is staid and logical, a product of privilege and upwardly bound economically. You come to see Nora as a more complex person through the play’s arc, and by the end of the production, her decisions flower suddenly, even if they rip apart expectations.

The single room set is lovely and intimate, conveying the home’s coziness and, at times, claustrophobia, as characters transition from sitting area to sitting area but never into any substantially new scenery. This conveys the extent to which the “doll’s house” is a sort of prison cell. Most of Nora’s time is spent circulating around the set in a spiral of escalating hopelessness.

All in all, we recommend checking this one out. It runs until Feb. 18 and is a serious play by a serious playwright. We’re eagerly awaiting the rest of the season, which promises additional plays that were innovative milestones within the theatrical world. The “season of game changers” is off to a good start.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with one cat, a dog, ten fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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