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Theater review: Flaws Smudge, But Don’t Destroy, ‘A Doll’s House’

Doll's House ACT1 June 2013A Doll’s House by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen is a true classic. The tale of a Victorian household under secret siege, the play was one of the first to adopt dramatic realism. It was so shocking and divisive when released in 1879 that discussing the play was frowned upon in many circles. Today, it bears the distinction of being among the most produced plays in the history of theater.

The current ACT 1 version features an adaptation of the script by Director Kelly Lapczynski. The adaptation attempts to simplify casting and smooth dialogue without sacrificing the intended tone and meaning. Sadly, though much care has obviously been taken with the script, ACT 1’s performers seem largely unprepared.

The cast is led by Terra Buschmann as the ever-present Nora Helmer, certainly the central figure of the play, if not the actual story. Nora has been married for eight years to Torvald (Ben Gregory), with whom she has a fine home and three young children (not represented in this production). Their maid, Helen (Elizabeth Hayes), and nanny, Anne-Marie (Heather Alexander), share the house in typical Victorian fashion; the Helmer’s family friend, Doctor Peter Rank (Neil Bergman), Nora’s old acquaintance, Christine Linde (Maggie Pitt), and the lawyer and antagonist Nils Krogstad (Bob Roberts) complete the cast.

The story goes that some time ago, Nora took out secret a loan from Krogstad so that she and her husband might take a constitutional trip for the sake of Torvald’s recovery from a long illness. Recover he did, and recently Torvald has begun to make a place for himself by becoming manager of the local bank. Meanwhile, the apparent squanderer Nora has been paying the loan off bit by bit.

Unfortunately, Krogstad has caught her in an indiscretion: Nora falsified her father’s co-signature for the loan, dating it shortly after his death. Since her husband cares little for Krogstad, who has been caught at indiscretions of his own, and Mrs. Linde is a widow in need of a position, Torvald fires the lawyer from his bank job. With little recourse, Krogstad implores Nora to influence her husband in his favor.

When she fails, Krogstad moves to expose her secret and destroy her family. Terrified and alone in her Victorian parlor, as the hours pass on the face of Krogstad’s ticking clock, Nora begins to see her situation in a devastatingly stark light, making a decision that changes every life she touches, even though her friend, Christine, has come to her aid by reuniting with her old flame, Krogstad.

Obviously, dramatic pace must be maintained in a play as long A Doll’s House. But the reality of quickening period dialogue is that the emotion drains right away, as happens with so many Shakespeare productions. When this need is combined with modern interpretation of Victorian restraint, too often the players come off as stiff and dry. This show is dry enough to crumble.

Moments of wit and revelation are swept away, and rapid dialogue avails little when lines are dropped and stumbled over with regularity. Nora’s descent into desperation and subsequent revelation are handled like one long smooth slide, and while Buschmann certainly expresses the decline, the character lacks any real dynamism. Her ups and downs seem to be missing entirely, and any momentary joy is replaced with barely-contained panic.

This production’s dynamism really belongs to Berman’s Dr. Rank, who follows his smaller through-line with greater care and action. Gregory manages the patronizing but gentle air Torvald calls for, but loses those rare flames of passion somewhere in his tight Victorian carriage. His best moments are the humorous bits.

Too often, these otherwise capable actors sit or stand with lifeless hands reciting their lines as though they were in Latin class. They sometimes even trample each other’s lines, like they aren’t really listening. It is easy enough to pick out the handful of occasions when this is intended.

It’s Victorian and Norwegian so dry is expected, but so much is possible within that framework. That’s especially true with such a ground-breaking play as A Doll’s House once was. A little less semi-British delivery and a lot more active characterization might have brought this revival from good to great.

And there’s the rub. Because in spite of its flaws, this version of A Doll’s House is pretty good: Good enough in fact that the moments of rushed and fumbled dialogue don’t destroy as much as smudge it. It is dry, but not quite too dry, just a bit like the Christmas goose. You can always forgive a little bit more when surrounded by those with whom you have the most complicated and rewarding relationships.

ACT 1 presents A Doll’s House through June 15 at the Darkhorse Theater (4610 Charlotte Ave.). Shows are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. Tickets are $12; for more info please visit act1online.com.

*Photo of Ben Gregory as Torvald (at piano), Terra Buschmann as Nora (foreground) and Neil Bergman as Dr. Rank (standing) by Kelly Lapczynski courtesy ACT 1.

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About Logan L. Masterson

Logan L. Masterson is a longtime Nashville resident and arts lover. He has covered the Nashville theater scene for The Examiner since 2009, and has reviewed films, fiction, and other media for Fantasy Magazine, Themestream, and his own website. He is a design contributor to the annual Killer Nashville writers’ conference, and was recently appointed Literary Editor for Digital Fabber Magazine. Logan is also a published poet and aspiring author.