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No more games in ‘A Doll’s House’

Maya Phillips | 3/13/2014, 2:23 p.m.
Steve Toussaint and Hattie Morahan in BAM’s production of “A Doll’s House”

The idea of the independent, self-actualized female is one that we know—but not so much so that we take the idea for granted, as to some degree, the age-old expectations and stereotypes of women’s roles in society still remain. But when the door closed in the last scene of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” in 1879, one of the most frequently performed plays in the world, the radical implications of the play—what it said about marriage, about society, about the autonomy of the individual, even when that individual is a female—shook theatergoers, actors and patrons at the time. Still, the play grew out of its notoriety in the 19th century and became a staple of the world of theater, so that even today, directors, actors and audiences are asking the question posed in Ibsen’s great work: What happens when a doll wants to stop playing the game?

Young Vic’s production of “A Doll’s House,” which makes its U.S. premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), brings with it a history of controversy and characters who continue to speak to a modern audience. A domestic drama with a modern twist, the play looks into the seemingly idyllic life of Nora Helmer, a wife and mother of three. When faced with a difficult decision regarding her husband’s illness and her family’s finances, Nora commits a crime that comes back to haunt her in the form of her husband’s blackmailing employee. By the end, Nora makes an unconventional decision that has come to define Ibsen’s play as a revolutionarily modern critique of a fundamental societal norm.

Taking place on a beautiful and understated rotating set on the stage of BAM’s Harvey Theater, the production elicits the feeling of being set in an artificial toy home. The set rotates as the characters move from room to room, and we look in on the action as though we are looking at toys in a child’s dollhouse.

Hattie Morahan takes the helm as Nora, portraying the character’s childishness, coquettishness and fear and setting her up for Nora’s climactic turn. For all her cluelessness and naivety, Morahan’s Nora also knowingly plays the game until the end, using a coy smile and some playfulness to subtly manipulate her husband. While Morahan’s physicality tends to be stiff, awkward and reminiscent of a plastic doll—possibly an aesthetic choice to reflect the overarching motif of the work, but distracting nevertheless—her energy and emotional presence as the character is spot-on.

As Nora’s husband, Torvald, Dominic Rohan perfectly captures the clueless throwaway misogyny of the time—the seemingly harmless yet nonetheless destructive pet names he uses for Nora, the ever-present and unspoken condescension inherent in the structure of the marital norm. Caroline Martin, who portrays Kristine Linde, Nora’s practical, hardworking childhood friend and foil, is refreshingly grounded and real, while Steve Toussaint and Nick Fletcher, the ill-fated Dr. Rank and vengeful scoundrel Nils Krogstad respectively, present well-rounded, tragic characters who give the audience a peek into others’ troubled lives and whose emotional development fills out the play.

With this play having seen everything from the insides of high school textbooks to community stages to expensive productions, the ending may not be such a surprise for some, but even for those who know the fates of Nora, Torvald, Kristine, Dr. Rank and Krogstad, the suspenseful buildup and artful work of the actors in this production is enough to make it new again.

“A Doll’s House” is now playing at BAM’s Harvey Theater (651 Fulton St., Brooklyn) through March 16. For more information, visit www.bam.org or call 718-636-4100.