Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri
Don’t miss your opportunity to see how scripts in the hands of competent, talented actors all but disappear in a staged reading of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, presented by Southern Tier Actors Read (S.T.A.R.) and directed by Chris Nickerson.
A series of readings opened last Saturday night (May 4) at the Chenango River Theatre in Greene and will continue this weekend (May 10-12) s at the Phelps Mansion Museum in Binghamton.
In this two-act adaptation of a classic, a narrator helps advance the action of the play. Carolyn Christy-Boyden narrates but also plays the part of the housemaid, Helene, whose primary job is to usher visitors in and out of the home of the Helmers (banker Torvald; his wife, Nora, and the three Helmer children, whom we never see). Like everything I’ve seen Christy-Boyden do, there’s an element of wry humor here that makes her performance fun to watch.
Nora (Suzanne Santer-Brigham) has been made to believe she should be in love with her upwardly mobile husband, and she goes to great lengths to prove it. Torvald (Mark Roth) is in love with Nora, as a mentor might be with a protégé. Rounding out the cast are Dr. Rank (Mitch Tiffany), who is deeply fond of both of Nora and Torvald for whatever reason; Nora’s old friend Kristine (Barbara Vartanian), and one of Torvald’s associates, Krogstad (Samuel Westover).
Kristine and Krogstad, who appear at the Helmers’ home on Christmas Eve, might just know each other, and they separately insinuate themselves into certain aspects of the Helmers’ lives. Everyone here has a secret, and they use each other’s guilty information or disappointed hopes to attain their own ends.
In 1879 Norway, when Ibsen wrote a play ostensibly about a marriage between a childlike woman and her domineering husband, the playwright’s intent was to jolt, and possibly educate, the audience with the wife’s transformation to independence, and the reversal of roles. It was an early stab at feminist literature — perhaps a little too early.
Indeed, Ibsen was made to change the original ending to accommodate a late 19th century sensibility. People did not want to see the dissolution of an eight-year marriage because of what they may have seen as the ravings of a hysterical woman. (Details: Listen to Nickerson and S.T.A.R.’s co-founderJudy McMahon when interviewed by WSKG’s Bill Snyder: https://wskg.org/arts/what-prompts-a-woman-to-leave-her-comfortable-and-happy-life/ )
Today’s audiences are sure to be disturbed by the unabashed condescension this husband displays toward his wife and to wonder what takes Nora so long to realize she’s being manipulated to do Torvald’s bidding. Her job is to stay within the allowance he has budgeted for her and otherwise to keep her mouth shut until he is ready to play with her, like the doll he imagines her. He keeps her in line with unflattering names, like “little miss stubborn shoes,” and scolds her mercilessly about the family finances — all with a pretension of adulation.
Santer-Brigham’s Nora appears delicate and fragile, like the little bird her husband, would like to think she is. Her gentle speaking voice and graceful movements in a physically (and metaphorically) restricted space make her the perfect choice for this occasionally juvenile, sometimes grave, but always sympathetic character.
Roth’s Torvald is richly despicable with his paternal condescension and baby talk. He enjoys a good party, and as he gets deeper in his cups, his demands on his wife become more and more comically and lasciviously outrageous. I wasn’t the only one in last Saturday’s audience who had to unsuccessfully stifle a laugh I thought would be too loud. Watch for Nora’s transformation, though, when a light bulb finally goes off over her head, and she wonders why she risked so much for such a selfish and disgusting man.
Tiffany as the long-suffering but stalwart Dr. Rank, sticks around long enough to reveal his own dire secret to Nora. He may be the only one who really loves both of them, Torvald because of their long, collegial history as friends, and Nora, as the object of his daring, yet ultimately unrequited, longing.
Tiffany’s portrayal is, in the words of another actor who greeted him in the lobby afterward, “transformative.” When Rank is drunk from the indulgences of the night, Tiffany doesn’t overplay it, and when he reveals his own struggles, it is with a cheerful resignation, although the others see Rank perpetually under the shadow of a dark cloud, and pity him. He is sympathetic, but he is not to be pitied.
Vartanian plays Kristine, a woman seeking help from the Helmers, and who gets more than she bargains for. Vartanian told me she believed she only had to channel herself to make Kristine believable, but I could tell it took more than that. Her quiet interpretation of Kristine’s desperation and hopefulness is spot-on.
Westover’s Krogstad is just ominous enough to explain why most of the other characters dislike him intensely. However, even he has a softer side, as the script neatly accommodates.
McMahon plays the Helmers’ nanny, a minor character, whom, she says, figures prominently in the upcoming full production of Lucas Hnath’s 2017 sequel, A Doll’s House II, which will be part of Chenango River Theatre’s 2019 season.
McMahon hopes the original will serve as a teaser for the new play at CRT. She and Nickerson expressed their appreciation to Bill Lelbach for permitting them to use his space for the opening of this reading. This was the first time CRT and S.T.A.R. had collaborated.
IF YOU GO: Readings of A Doll’s House will be at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday (May 10-11) and 3 p.m. Sunday (May 12) at the Phelps Mansion Museum, 191 Court St., Binghamton. Seats are $15 and can be reserved by calling 722-4873.