Regional Reviews: San Francisco
An Interesting Complete Version of
The American Conservatory Theatre is currently presenting a new translation of Henrik Ibsen's 1879 masterpiece A Doll's House at the Geary Theatre with ACT core member Rene Augesen playing Nora. The production runs a full 2 hours and 40 minutes with two intermissions.
A Doll's House was the second in Ibsen's series of realist plays. The play was a watershed in changing dramatic European Theatre at the time. It caused quite a stir in Europe and quickly spread to the avant garde theaters of Europe. Ibsen was credited for mastering and popularizing the realist drama. The play was read and performed thoughout Europe like no other drama before.
A Doll's House has the standard formula of a first act that offers exposition, the second a situation and the third an unraveling. However something new happened in this play. At the end, Nora tells Torvald that they must sit down and "discuss all that has been happening to us." Here was a play where both male and female were on an equal base - something that was previously unheard of.
Ibsen also abandoned the tradition of the older moral figure and made Dr. Rank far from a moral force. He is sickly, near death from a rotting disease, and is lasciviously and openly coveting Nora. Even the best friend of Nora, the matronly Mrs. Linde, is imperfect; these are real people on the stage.
A Doll's House is set in a small Norwegian town during Christmas and tells the story of a young pretty wife Nora (Rene Auguesen), married to Torvald (Stephen Caffrey) who is to become the manager of a bank. He pampers and protects her like a doll. Torvald is master of the house and his wife is a pretty "plaything" with nothing in her head. Nora is thrilled, since Torvald's new position will bring more money into the house. However, Nora had borrowed money from Nils Krogstad (Gregory Wallace), a shifty loan shark who took her husband to southern climates so he could regain his heath from tuberculosis. The ever righteous Torvald thinks the money came from Nora's father, and he would be aghast at the prospect that Nora would have dealt with a shady money lender. On top of everything that Nora has done, she forged her father's signature to get the loan, which is a criminal offense.
The plot then twists and turns as Nora does everything to protect the good name of the family. Nils works in Torvald's bank and he is about to be downgraded to a menial position. He blackmails Nora with the forged document to get Torvald to upgrade him to a higher position. Nora tries everything, but she is nearing a breakdown when she has to face reality. To make matters worse, their best and closest friend, the sickly Dr. Rank who visits them everyday, really wants to bed Nora. The play essentially chronicles Nora's near breakdown as the truth and its consequences get closer and closer. The ending of the play scandalized the Victorian audiences of Europe.
I have seen A Doll's House many times over the years with various actresses taking the role of Nora. Many have had difficulty portraying a silly, immature Nora in the first act and a serious, open minded person at the end of the last act. Marsha Mason played the role at ACT almost 30 years ago, and she successfully grew from a naive scatterbrain to a strong woman. It was an extraordinary performance. Janet McTeer also delivered a riveting performance in the 1997 New York production at the Belasco. She ran the gamut of emotions and changed from a childlike character to a strong willed woman.
Rene Augesen plays Nora entirely different. She does not change from the first act until the last verbal battle with her husband. Her performance is more animated than other Noras I have seen. She is manipulative from the very first scene and neurotic in fear of her discovery. Augesen is excellent in the role and she holds the center of the stage, especially in that thrilling last scene.
Stephen Caffrey as Torvald holds his own with Augesen. He plays the role as a stereotypical 19th century husband, a person with a dedicated sense of decorum who knows he is the ruler of the house and that his wife is a "little bird" to be protected against the big bad world. He runs the gamut of emotions throughout to his amazing last scene when he discovers the truth.
Gregory Wallace is the most humane Nils I have ever seen. Wallace plays the role as only a widower with two children, wanting them to be free from poverty. He shows a great deal of humanity. James Carpenter is excellent as Nora's beloved and dying friend Dr. Rank. He looks and acts the picture of ill health. Joan Harris-Gelb gives a wonderful restrained performance as the long lost friend, all but defeated by hardship. Joy Carlin as the Nanny has very little to do but stand around answering doors and taking the two children to another room in one of the scenes.
Anne Smart's set is excellent and communicates Torvald and Nora's social position. It is a box constrained with boxes growing larger and larger to give the illusion of social strictures. The room is refined middle class with a large round Norwegian stove to the right of the stage. There is something of a doll house here with a child's table and chairs and tea set downstage where some of the conversations take place.
Carey Perloff, who helms this production, keeps the play moving through the two hour and 40 minute period. She makes the play more about modern day women's problems and their quest for greater independence. She also gives good direction in that taut last scene between husband and wife when Nora says that never in eight years of marriage had they actually had a real conversation.
A Doll's House runs February 8th at the Geary Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-749-2228 and on line at www.act-sf.org Their next production is the world premiere of S. M. Shephard-Massat's Levee James.