Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Also see Rebecca's review of Morning's at Seven
Powell plays Nora Helmer, young mother of three small children and wife to aspiring banker Torvald Helmer (Cody Nickell). On the surface Nora's life seems perfect: Torvald is an adoring husband who just got promoted, Nora does not need to work, and her own childhood nanny Anna Marie (Joilet Harris) is there to take care of the children. But when her old friend Kristine Linde (Becky Chong) returns, it soon becomes apparent that Nora's ideal household is little more than a gilded cage. Torvald is overbearing, her lack of income keeps her completely dependent, and her relationship to the children is fraught by feelings of guilt and inadequacy. When the details of an illegally obtained loan surface to threaten the Helmers' comfortable status quo, years of simmering hope, resentment and tension finally come to a head.
A Doll's House is almost 140 years old and revived frequently, so it may take more than just a strong straightforward production to justify the cost of admission. At the Arden, that special something extra comes in the form of a powerful performance by the regnant Katharine Powell. Nora is usually portrayed as a childish innocent and passive object of desire, but Powell's Nora is petty and scheming and sexual. In fact, the sexual tension between Nora and Torvalda tension that is constantly influencing and being influenced by their lopsided power dynamicis one of the most interesting elements of the production.
This complicated and occasionally complicit Nora is less sympathetic than the standard Stepford wife, but that is exactly what makes Powell's interpretation so thought provoking. Should a calculating woman stuck in an abusive relationship be less worthy of our sympathy than a foolish one? Is the mistreatment of a conniving partner more easily justified than that of a docile wife? Who is responsible when mutual sexual interest morphs into unacceptable coercion? These are just a few of the very relevant questions that loom large in director Terrence J. Nolen's production.
Unfortunately, the impact of Powell's performance and the play as a whole fizzle a bit at the climax. Nora should be radically changed by what she experiences in the second act, but instead we just get a slightly more intense level of resignation and despair. It would be more interesting if Powell seemed detached about what she was planning to do next. A calm and quietly confident Nora would make for a more meaningful transformation.
Set designed by Jorge Cousineau is simple but clever. Under Nolen's direction, the theater-in-the-round staging adds an element of realism appropriate to the intimate subject matter. The costumes are lush with a timeless fairy tale qualityTorvald's debonair get-up and Kristine's dour threads are two of my favoritesbut I wish the Tarantella costume looked like more than a lovely red dress.
A Doll's House runs through March 4, 2018, on the Arden Theater Company's Arcadia Stage, 40 N. 2nd Street, Old City Philadelphia PA. For tickets call the box office at 215.922.1122 or visit www.ardentheatre.org