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Of what worth is a marriage, if its foundation is based on social pretensions and it is kept "alive" with hypocrisy and lies?

Theater Review (NYC-Off Broadway): Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Nora,’ Directed by Austin Pendleton

NORA, Todd Gearhart, Jean Lichty, Austin Pendleton, Cherry Lane Theatre
Jean Lichty and Todd Gearhart in NORA directed by Austin Pendleton at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen is a masterpiece of profound dramatic beauty and social criticism. The play’s revelations about gender politics, social mores, marriage roles, and identity were ahead of their time. Ingmar Bergman pared down the lengthy, intricate structure of the play and adapted it for a modern audience. The film director, author, and producer also streamlined Ibsen’s dialogue. He cut ancillary scenes and eliminated characters. Yet, Bergman maintained the substance of Ibsen’s characterizations, conflicts, and themes. The Bergman version has received a further tweaking by director Austin Pendleton and his fine ensemble of actors in Nora, which is now being performed at the Cherry Lane Theatre.

By refining and stylizing some elements of Bergman’s adaption and elucidating the character portrayals with thrilling authenticity, the director and actors have heightened the essence of Ibsen’s themes and brought them into stark relief against the backdrop of our current culture. Indeed, the result is that Nora’s last scenes are especially powerful, allowing the last line of the play to be the exclamation point that resonates with memorable force.

The plot arc moves quickly to establish the conflicts. Nora (Jean Lichty’s portrayal is dynamic and moment-to-moment in revealing Nora’s expanding enlightenment), is Torvald’s (Todd Gearhart portrays the character with aloof-sensitivity and  arrogant obliviousness), “little bird” whose flight feathers are continually clipped by his benignly controlling personality and confining presumptions about Nora’s incapacity for pure thought and innovative, concerted action.

In their opening discussions as Torvald sweetly sanctions Nora for her spendthrift ways while lifting up his successful promotion at the bank, we clearly “get” their marriage, their roles, their identities, and the dynamics that keep their relationship afloat on a life-raft of Nora’s making. Nora’s alluring and playful replies to Torvald’s gentle but demeaning remarks prescribing “who she is,” encourage the conditional interactions between them. Though we know it is otherwise if we are familiar with Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Lichty and Gearhart adroitly lead us to believe that Torvald’s and Nora’s marriage is a good one, and their union is loving and productive. Though the adaption has excluded the children, no matter. There is enough we’ve already seen to believe that they are secure and happy. Indeed, it is apparent that Nora lives for the contentment of her husband and children and is thrilled to be his Stepford Wife, beautiful, accommodating, subservient, clueless, un-challenging. With her seemingly frivolous demeanor, she reinforces Torvald’s role as the dominant, attractively manly godhead of the household.

Andrea Cirie, Jean Lichty, George Morfogen, NORA, Cherry Lane Theatre, Austin Pendleton
(L to R) Andrea Cirie, Jean Lichty, George Morfogen in NORA at the Cherry Lane Theatre, directed by Austin Pendleton. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

If Torvald could keep Nora in his velvet prison preventing interactions with outside friends or acquaintances, Nora’s growth and development would continue to be stunted by his paternalistic dominance. However, circumstances and fate have spun a web that forces Nora to act on her own and let others into the closed system that the couple have created to shelter themselves from themselves and each other.

In her discussions with Nils Kirogstad (Larry Bull’s soft intimidation remains complex and real), and her “long-lost” friend, Christine Linde (Andrea Cirie’s portrayal is affecting as she reveals the pain of the past and expresses joy when she reestablishes her relationship with Krogstad), we discover that Nora has utterly duped Torvald. To save his life from a mortal illness, Nora borrowed money from the sinister Nils Krogstad, without Torvald’s knowledge or permission. Her decision was creditable because Torvald’s rest cure in Italy “saved” him, though it left them in debt. Though she took responsibility for her actions, acted unilaterally and independently to secretly pay off the debts incurred by the trip, her deception placed her under the power of Nils Krogstad, a less benign paternalist with an unsavory past.

NORA, A DOLL'S HOUSE, Ingmar Bergman, Jean Lichty, Larry Bull, Cherry Lane Theatre
Jean Lichty and Larry Bull in NORA an adaption of ‘A Doll’s House,’ by Ingmar Bergman at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Complications arise when to help out her friend Christine, Torvald fires Nils Krogstad from his bank position. Because Nora has falsified an instrument to obtain the loan and Krogstad can prove it, he threatens Nora to influence Torvald to return his job to him. If she doesn’t, he will tell Torvald of her impropriety, leverage his power to have Torvald fired, and then take his place. Nora stands up to Krogstad’s intimidation to his face but she cannot persuade Torvald to give Krogstad his job back; she is unable to tell him the truth. In despair she reveals her deceptions and Krogstad’s threats to Christine who eventually presents a solution: she offers to intervene by reestablishing her relationship with Krogstad which will positively influence him toward mercy.

Despite the extreme pressure caused by her pretension to “keep their marriage together,” within her soul Nora gradually unravels (Lichty is commanding in her revelation of Nora’s progression). The irony is that as she “unwinds,” she becomes free from the bondages of unhappiness and artificiality that prompted her to seek a path of mendacity with Torvald to begin with.

Frenzied within Nora continues to act the part of the demure, insubstantial, flighty wife; she dresses in masquerade to dance the Tarantella superbly at the ball (in this version we do not see her dance). Torvald boasts of his Capri maiden to Christine who outside of Torvald’s hearing encourages Nora to tell him the truth; if she doesn’t, Krogstad’s recently mailed letter will expose her lies anyway. After Christine leaves, Nora emotionally dissolves into fear and near loathing and rejects Torvald’s embrace, a symbolic foreshadowing of the flight of his little “lark.” Ending the scene, Dr. Rank (George Morfogen in an effortless, excellent performance), visits and the ironic banter between Nora and the doctor foreshadows themes of death and the disintegration of a marriage that never really was.

Jean Lichty, George Morfogen, Cherry Lane Theatre, NORA
Jean Lichty and George Morfogen in NORA. Photo by Carol Rosegg

In the final scene, Torvald reads Krogstad’s first letter, vilifies Nora and verbally abuses her. He cruelly states that though they will act as if nothing happened continuing the facade of “love and marriage,” she is forbidden to raise his children.  In expressing his anger, Torvald is unearthing the rottenness within…his inability to love, to have compassion or understanding for anyone, least of all his frivolous wife. It is a revelation for Nora, (portrayed beautifully by Lichty), so that when Christine delivers a second letter from Krogstad with the “evidence” of the incriminating promissory note which “saves” Torvald, we understand that nothing Torvald can say to Nora will protect him from the truth of who and what Nora knows him to be.

Nora’s journey from the bondage of lies and self-deception to freedom concludes as Torvald sexually celebrates his victory making “love” to Nora who is his wooden accomplice in her final coup de grace of deception. This ritualistic sexual act, iconic in its expression of male-female bedroom pretense, fittingly concludes their relationship. The scene which is stunningly directed by Pendleton and acted by Gearhart and Lichty is an apotheosis of the themes that Bergman/Ibsen have weaved throughout.

Todd Gearhart, Jean Lichty, Cherry Lane Theatre
Todd Gearhart and Jean Lichty in NORA. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Thus, as the light of the day breaks, we are not surprised that Nora flatly tells Torvald she’s leaving. Nora has stripped the scales from her eyes, has thrown off the social mores which oppressed in their demands she must be the “wife and mother of obligation.” She asserts her independence in making a fearless proclamation; she will discover who she is and what she is capable of without Torvald. As this “everywoman” severs herself from torment, and the frenetic, fluttering dance she has been performing for Torvald, she steps into the beginning of a new identity, and allows hope to settle in her being. We do not lose track of the irony of the process: to keep her marriage and Torvald alive, she opened a door to self-revelation and autonomously made life-affirming decisions for both of them. In her “weakness” she was masterfully strong and now it is Torvald who weakly, fearfully must face life without her.

In this wonderful production the secondary characters remain onstage in the shadows until their presence is required to interact with Nora and Torvald. Actors George Morfogen (Dr. Rank), Larry Bull (Nils Krogstad), Andrea Cirie (Christine Linde), move seamlessly in and out of the action, carrying it with them and retreating until the next sequence. All of the actors shepherded by the director do an admirable job of manifesting time, place and space. During their scenes Rank, Linde and Krogstad elucidate themes, forward the action and reinforce and expose the facets of Nora’s and Torvald’s characters.

As the secondary characters wait to appear, one cannot help but note symbolism. They clearly represent the hovering shadows of social mores, gender politics and the cultures’ external presumptions about failure, weakness, isolation, sorrow, guilt and sickness. These elements stimulate Nora’s fears which keep her entrenched in her duplicitous masquerade; the social mores, the male/female role expectations keep Torvald oblivious to aspects of greatness in his wife. The secondary characters also represent the social influences that prevent Nora and Torvald’s real communication with each other, influences which divert them from defining their lives and marriage on their own terms. Only until Nora overthrows her masquerade, prompted by Torvald’s emblazoned cruelty, does she seek self-redemption and moves toward self-discovery.

The production design (lighting, costuming, sets), suggests the economic level of the Helmers and provides for the fluidity of space, time, place this adaptation requires. The music selection is haunting and ethereal. It is suggestive of Nora’s personality before her enlightenment and after. All these elements of dramatic spectacle cohere beautifully as they enhance the themes of this adaptation.

This must see production at the Cherry Lane Theatre runs until December 12th.

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About Carole Di Tosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is a published writer, novelist and poet. She authors three blogs: The Fat and the Skinny, All Along the NYC Skyline, A Christian Apologists' Sonnets. She contributed articles for Technorati on various trending topics. She guest writes for other blogs. She covers NYC trending events and writes articles promoting advocacy. She was a former English Instructor. Her published dissertation is referenced in three books, two by Margo Ely.

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