A woman with a great awakening is an unstoppable force. No one proves this more than Nora Helmer in Henrik Ibsen’s infamous play A Doll’s House, running now at Seattle Shakespeare Company. Brimming with secrecy, drama and emotionally charged relationships, the Seattle Shakes production of this classic boasts talented actors who truly become their characters, making archaic themes relatable, even 134 years after the play’s premiere.
It is Christmas in late nineteenth century Norway, and Nora Helmer (Jennifer Sue Johnson) is bustling around her home, preparing it for the holidays. Her husband Torvald (Michael Patten) has just been promoted to the affluent position of Director at the bank, and Nora is busy dreaming about his future income. When an old childhood friend Kristine (Betsy Schwartz) shows up unexpectedly, and Nora convinces Torvald to give her a job at the bank, everyone looks forward to splendid holiday. No one expects that Nora harbors a large, illegal secret, and that a man named Krogstad (Peter Dylan O’Connor)—one of the employees her husband has chosen to dismiss—holds a document that could be the undoing for the seemingly happy Helmers.
Seattle Shakes delivers a solid production in all aspects of the play. Directed by Russ Banham, most of the actors deliver stellar performances, and Johnson absolutely shines as Nora. Her elocution is swift and almost breathless, propelling her around the set with youthful energy, but Johnson never overdoes it. Her seeming naiveté is balanced by sly cunning—she can say as much with her eyes as with her mouth—preventing her from seeming hollow or contrived. The character transformation from Act I to Act III is completely believable, and the just-below-the-surface vulnerability creates an opportunity for deep empathy—this is a deeply unhappy woman. Despite Krogstad’s vulgar and nasty personality, a relatable sadness comes through O’Connor, and his interactions with Kristine (another brilliant performance) quiver with the nervous energy of reunited lovers.
As Torvald, Patten captures the stiff and solid demeanor of an affluent man strictly controlling everything in his life. But more often than not he seems hollow, as if he were just reading his lines, and this gives Johnson little to play off of, especially in Act III where her heightened emotion highlights his calm acquiescence at her shocking final choice. Of course there are many ways to portray Torvald, this is the director’s choice, but given the mad outrage he spews just minutes before when he thinks his reputation will be ruined, the shift towards that follows isn’t completely believable.
Costumes and set (Pete Rush and Craig Wollam, respectively) are elegant—the perfect representation of an upwardly mobile family. The apartment, with minimal furniture—piano, sofa, sideboard—has three walls, creating a slightly enclosed area, reinforcing Nora’s realization that she has never been free to find her individuality. A clever scenic devise—the façade of a charming pillared house breaking open into three pieces and integrating with the main apartment set—starts the show off with a hit of whimsy, jolting us into the childlike world of Nora Helmer.
It takes a smart production to resurrect themes from more than 100 years ago—and make the audience care. The ideas of an unhappy marriage or a rebellious wife aren’t as socially unacceptable or morally wicked as they were in Ibsen’s day, but the talented cast of Seattle Shakes’ production delivers a nuanced performance that reminds us how far we’ve come with women’s rights, and how hard women in the past fought to win them.
A Doll’s House runs through January 27. Tickets here.
Micahel Patten and Jennifer Sue Johnson as Torvald and Nora Helmer in A Doll's House. Image by John Ulman.