A house is not a home.
“Nora, you are first a wife and mother.” “No, Torvald, I am first a human being.” Such is the essence of conflict in Henrik Ibsen’s classic play A Doll’s House. Conventional thinking in late 19th century Norway and most other societies would have supported Torvald’s position, that a woman’s responsibilities are domestic and that her stature is reflective as indicated by the successes of her husband and children. Though Ibsen denied consciously taking up the banner of woman’s rights, the nature of Nora’s crisis was unique to women. With or without intent, he created a seminal heroine for the movement.
The great Swedish cinema auteur, Ingmar Bergman, took it upon himself to improve on one of the world’s greatest playwrights, and created Nora, based on Ibsen’s work. In large measure, he condensed A Doll’s House by eliminating characters and subplots. What remains is a thoughtful rendering of the central theme, which stands on its own and meets the modern sensibilities of our more hurried existence. As such, Shotgun Players should satisfy a younger audience and those unfamiliar with the original work. Those who know A Doll’s House will find an interesting contrast and have the pleasure of debating the merits of this manner of adaptation.
The setup of the storyline is quite simple. A typical married woman, Nora is enthused at husband Torvald’s promotion to manager at the local bank, and she has gone on a spending spree well in advance of money to pay for the extravagance. Meanwhile, an employee of the bank with a dark past, Krogstad, has learned that he is about to be fired. He secretly implores Nora to intervene with Torvald. What connects Krogstad and Nora so that she might be inclined to help him? He had secretly lent her money in order that she and Torvald could spend time in Italy for him to recover from an illness. Torvald was not aware of the relationship, and its revelation could be quite damaging to his career and standing in the community.
Director Beth Wilmurt has utilized spare sets, usually with only a settee or a table and two chairs on the stage, focusing the attention on the actors. Leading up to the point of conflict, the figurative first act (there is no intermission) is interpreted in a somewhat comic manner. It is interesting to listen to lines delivered in light hearted fashion that one is accustomed to hearing in the stolid Scandinavian style.
Although the other main characters wear period dress, the trousered Nora’s is of a more modern ilk, suggesting that the others are in concert with tradition, while Nora is pulling forward. As Nora, Jessma Evans offers a naturalistic performance and is comfortable in the modern idiom of her dialogue. Her glibness, however, belies concerns that are later revealed. Kevin Kemp’s affect as Torvald is somewhat updated, but the actor still adeptly conveys the stiff-necked propriety and male condescension of earlier times. Adam Elder convinces as the swarthy and menacing Krogstad, his visage sheltered by a pulled-down hat. Michael J. Asberry provides a comforting presence as the affable family friend, Dr. Rank, while Erin Mei-Ling Stuart conveys a sense of mystery as Kristine, the widow who has returned home after living away.
It is interesting that clusters of the same or related works often appear in the same season around the Bay Area, and it is a shame that few theater goers are alerted to the possibility to witness and compare them, or that the producing companies don’t seize the opportunity for joint marketing. For instance, three worthy variations of the Antigone theme appeared two years ago, one of them by Shotgun Players. Three Othellos appeared last year. This season, Nora was preceded by Cutting Ball Theater’s adaptation and update of Hedda Gabler, Ibsen’s other groundbreaking leading lady. In addition to the two productions being of individual interest, the divergence of character between the two profound exemplars deepens the insight into the society from which they come. Nora has been the model wife, attentive and sacrificing, while Hedda is self-indulgent and scheming.
Of course, the question remains – do we need to see these old war horses whose mores are so passé? The answer is yes. Not only do they provide lessons of history, but it should be clear that some of the vast changes that we collectively embrace are neither uniformly adopted within societies nor universally adopted among societies.
Nora by Ingmar Bergman, based on A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, is produced by Shotgun Players and plays at Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley, through April 16, 2017. All photos are by Pak Han.