Pictured: Hillary Clemens and Todd Lanker. Photo by Mike Tsai.
By Bec Pennington
Nora is excited at her husband’s new prospects for promotion at the bank, delighting that they will no longer live as “paupers.” At his behest, she is to dance the tarantelle in their upstairs ballroom for their Christmas Eve masquerade party. Torvald will spend much time over the holiday working in his office in the house with its private entrance, while their full-time maid and nanny cares for the children so that Nora can entertain visitors. What unfolds is a slow burn of an awakening, as Nora tries to continue navigating her collapsing bubble of a life through little white lies and feminine charms.
Henrik Ibsen wrote A DOLL’S HOUSE in the 1870s in his native Norway, after watching the traumatic implosion of his friend’s life. Even as it turned out to be a temporarily devastating setback, Laura Kieler’s abandonment by her husband to a madhouse after she took out an illegal loan (she had asked Ibsen for the loan first) made a lasting impression on the playwright and he rewrote her story as a sort of what/if version with an ending that caused not a little bit of controversy as it made its way around the world.
Nora is holding a bit of a secret and betting against time and circumstances that she can keep it all to herself for good. Visits by a troubled Nils Krogstad (Tyler Alan Rowe) and Nora’s old friend, Kristine (Christina Schafer) threaten Nora’s efforts to maintain her husband’s vision of his wife as his “little lark.” Kristine, recently widowed, asks her friend’s favor in her penniless state, and while she is gracious about the tactless response, her precarious position forces her to confront Nora’s shallow views in order to get Nora to take her seriously. Nils’ desperation to restore his name and keep his job is driving him to blackmail; Rowe does a good job of drawing sympathy for his character, developing more than just a “bad guy.” Meanwhile, Nora keeps the head of the household busy with distractions like choosing her costume for the ball and visiting with their mutual best friend, Dr. Rank, though eventually, it becomes apparent that Dr. Rank is a closer friend to Nora than to husband Torvald.
Perhaps something has been lost in translation or over the passage of time, but regardless, Act 1 & 2 ramble along somewhat clumsily. The character interactions are written in an awkward manner and the dialog doesn’t always build meaning. Darren Sextro’s direction at times is as awkward as the play – Nora wanders the stage aimlessly a lot, almost seemingly in the sole effort to swish her skirts – but in spite of the flaws the cast deftly bring their characters into focus. All the real glory of this piece is saved for Act 3, when Todd Lanker gets to reveal Torvald’s full character, delivering a giddy soliloquy for the ages, tone-deaf and maddening, yet strangely satisfying to hear out loud after the buildup of the story. Hillary Clemens brilliantly flows Nora’s final epiphany into a calm, captivating response.
Kansas City Actors Theatre presents the play on Kelli Harrod’s simple and effective stage design, the entire show taking place in one room. While some plays require much, this one needs only set the scene and the rest is on the actors; production staff have done well to create just what is necessary, using limited properties and the right amount of decor and lighting to reflect the atmosphere of each moment. Costuming is pretty and close enough to the era, but to a strict eye needs some more tweaking in the alterations department.
While many hailed it as championing women’s rights, Isben insisted that A DOLL’S HOUSE was not motivated by social or political change—he simply strived to describe humanity. Whatever his intentions, if the first step in change is acknowledging a problem, the reflection on the western world was indicting and liberating alike. Notably, his protestation that this is a picture of humanity’s inherent characteristics might still be considered seriously as the play remains relatable some 140 years after its opening night.
A lot has been said about this play over the years, so much that another play was inspired to continue the story. KCAT’s A DOLL’S HOUSE will be followed next month by the Unicorn’s production of A DOLL’S HOUSE PART 2 in coordination with KCAT and with much of the same production directors and crew.