Was Swedish playwright August Strindberg a misogynist? And was Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen pro-women? Two new productions performed back to back will let you decide for yourself.
For Theatre for a New Audience’s first repertory season, director Arin Arbus has chosen classic Scandinavian plays from the modern repertory: Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Strindberg’s The Father. Besides the fact that neither play has had a major New York production since 1997, this is a brilliant idea in that The Father was written as a response to A Doll’s House, Strindberg obsessed with Ibsen as his perceived rival. Both plays concern the same themes: marriage as a state of war, the battle of the sexes, 19th century gender roles in a male-dominated society, and lack of education for women. However, do not fool yourself. Apparently never before in tandem in English, these plays are as timely today as when they were written.
These inspired revivals using the lucid and contemporary sounding Thornton Wilder adaptation of A Doll’s House (being staged for the first time in 80 years) and Scottish playwright David (The American Pilot, The Events, Strindberg’s Creditors) Greig’s new English language version of The Father feature a company of actors led by the magnificent John Douglas Thompson and Maggie Lacey, all of whom appear in both plays. With a new configuration of the Samuel H. Scripps Mainstage at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center with the audience sitting on opposite sides of a narrow playing area with two walls removed that puts the viewers ring side, these productions are dazzling theater whether seen in tandem or seen separately.
Written in 1879, A Doll’s House was extremely controversial in its time for criticizing the accepted Victorian notions about wives and husbands. Set in a provincial Norwegian town, Nora (Lacey), a wife of eight years, is first seen as a happy-go-lucky mother of two at Christmas time. Her doting but possessive husband Torvald (Thompson) has been promoted to manager of the bank and their finances will improve greatly in the new year. However, Nora has a secret that she has kept throughout their marriage from her husband. In order to save his life under medical advisory, Nora obtained a loan from a shady moneylender in order to take him to a warmer climate. Although Torvald believes that her father gave her the money, she had, in fact, forged a bond and has been paying it off in secret ever since.
Now that Torvald is in charge of the bank he is making some changes: Krogstad (Jesse J. Perez), a former classmate of his who has not shown enough deference, is the first to be fired, just as Nora’s school friend Christine Linden (Linda Powell), now a widow without children or resources, comes to town looking for a job. But it is Krogstad who loaned Nora the money, and he will do anything to keep his job, his last chance at respectability. Unfortunately, Christine is given Krogstad’s job and, as fate would have it, it was Christine breaking her engagement to him years before that led him to lose his reputation for integrity and probity. Suddenly, Nora’s world comes crashing down as Krogstad blackmails her in order to get his job back. Christine offers to help with her former lover until she sees how things really are between Nora and Torvald: Nora is no better than a doll wife in her husband’s nursery. The final confrontation between husband and wife is credited with starting modern drama.
As Lacey is on stage almost for the duration of this three-act play (performed in two parts), the evening is all hers just as The Father is all Thompson’s. As with all great Noras, she makes her different in each act which not only shows the passage of time over the three days of the play but also the journey she undergoes: in the first act she is flighty and merry, carefree and childish. In the second act, with Krogstad’s deadline hanging over her head, she is nervous and high strung. In the third act once the axe has fallen, she is calm, resolute and serene. Her illusions shattered by her marriage and her husband, she has come to an irrevocable decision. It is a beautifully modulated performance.
Playing a Torvald who is a good deal older than his wife, Thompson plays a low-key, suave, kindly but paternalistic husband in the play’s first two acts. However, when the showdown begins in Act Three when he thinks his reputation has been irredeemably damaged, the fireworks begin. His towering rage and rant at his wife who he sees as having ruined him is what we have come to expect from this performer who has become one of our best classic actors.
Perez is suitably sinister as the blackmailing Krogstad, making his lines mean a good deal more than he actually says. Powell playing Christina Linden (Americanized by Wilder from the more Scandinavian Christine Linde) is a beautifully unfussy and level-headed confidante who becomes the play’s moral center. Playing a doctor in each of the two plays, here Nigel Gore’s Dr. Rank is elegantly flirtatious and pedantic as the rich friend of the family who is dying of an inherited disease. While Nora’s children are usually cut, Wilder’s adaptation brings them on to good advantage as played by Ruben Almash and Jayla Lavender Nicholas. Playing nannies in both plays, Laurie Kennedy is here warm and embracing in the Helmer home where most of the affection is dissembled and misplaced.
Strindberg’s play, The Father, written ten years after Ibsen’s, is very much influenced by his disastrous experience with his own first marriage, and he sees women as predatory in order to get their own way in a male-dominated society. While A Doll’s House is in the form of a social problem play, The Father is cast as a psychological thriller. The title character (Thompson) is an army captain stationed in a remote garrison in rural Sweden. He has been at war with his wife Laura (Lacey) for the entire 20 years of their marriage.
Although he rules men as part of his job during the day, at home he is beset by women who want to run his life and that of his teenage daughter Bertha (Kimber Monroe): “Laura insists she be an artist, her grandmother wants her to be a spiritualist, Nanny Margaret a Baptist, the cook a Methodist and the maids want to recruit her into the Salvation Army. With so many women tugging at her the girl will be pulled apart. All her life I have tried to defend her from nonsense.” When the Captain tells his wife that he has decided to send Bertha to a boarding school in town, the battle lines are drawn, and as her brother the Pastor (Perez) warns the Captain, Laura never loses. However, the Captain is under the illusion that nineteenth century law leaves the family decisions to the husband.
The Captain thinks he is paranoid as papers go missing on his desk and books he orders from Paris for his study of geology fail to arrive. In fact, that is all Laura’s doing in her effort to get her husband declared insane. She has also stolen a letter that he wrote years ago in which he admitted that he thought he was losing his mind. With the help of the new Doctor Ostermark (Gore) who hears her biased description of her husband’s behavior before meeting the Captain, she hopes to win her battle with her husband. The deciding stroke comes when she tells her husband that their daughter is not his, reminding him that he has said earlier in a case between a young soldier and their pregnant maid that there is no way to check paternity of the father.
Performed without an intermission, the tension in Arbus’ The Father is palpable and builds to a shattering conclusion. Thompson gives a titanic performance as a man who is driven to insanity by all the people around him, while like a caged animal, he fights back with all the weapons at his disposal. Seeing him taking refuge in his wood-paneled office covered by animal trophies and rifles designed by Riccardo Hernandez, a symbolic war zone, we watch as the Captain descends into madness. Lacey’s Laura is cold, calculating and scheming, putting up a fight to the death, just as much for her independence and freedom (in a world in which she has few rights) as her husband is fighting for his very life.
As the Pastor and the Captain’s brother-in law, Perez is cynical and pragmatic knowing his sister as he does. Gore’s doctor is unctuous and sanctimonious spouting platitudes that pass as wisdom, very different from his Dr. Rank in the Ibsen play. Kennedy’s Nanny Margaret is a devout woman who is certain that faith solves all problems. As the soldier who has gotten the maid with child, Christian J. Mallen is ironic as the typical male chauvinist refusing to accept his responsibility for her condition. Used as a pawn in her parents’ battle, Monroe as Bertha is suitably frightened and confused, being pulled from one side to the other.
While Wilder’s excellent adaptation of the Ibsen play is like a contemporary historical play, Greig’s new version of the Strindberg is spare and lean and cuts to the bone. An amusing addition is the Captain’s reference to Mr. Alving, the dead husband who cannot speak for himself in Ibsen’s Ghosts. One of Wilder’s inspired updates is to eliminate Torvald’s animal references for his wife which make most translations of A Doll’s House seem dated.
The excellent design team is the same for both plays. Using the same two-walled space for both plays, Hernandez has created the elegant white paneled living room for the Helmers and the more masculine room for the Captain. Lit by Marcus Doshi, the design suggests nineteenth century candle light. In the third act of A Doll’s House the shadow on the wall chillingly depicts the rising sun. Susan Hilferty’s pitch-perfect period costumes make some comments of their own, like when Nora’s children arrive with their nanny and her daughter is dressed in the exact same material as her mother’s gown, a miniature version of Nora. Daniel Kluger and Lee Kinney’s sound design for The Father gives us howling winds and thunder which add to the warlike atmosphere in the home, while Kluger’s original music sets the tone and mood for both plays.
Not only is Theatre for a New Audience’s first repertory season riveting theater, but placing Ibsen and Strindberg side by side makes it possible to immediately see their similarities and their different styles. Director Arin Arbus has obtained superb performances from John Douglas Thompson and Maggie Lacey and has surrounded them with a supporting cast that is up to the task. Major staples of modern drama, A Doll’s House and The Father in the TFANA productions are not to be missed.
Ibsen’s A Doll’s House & Strindberg’s The Father (in rotating repertory through June 12, 2016)
Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center
Samuel H Scripps Mainstage, 262 Ashland Place, between Lafayette and Fulton Streets, in Brooklyn
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.tfana.org
Running time: A Doll’s House: two hours and 25 minutes including one intermission
The Father: one hour and 50 minutes with no intermission