UT explores middle-class despair in A Doll’s House

By Carl Pickerill

The multiplicity of themes that Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House provides a student director inundates even the most diffuse of theatrical commentators with meaty social commentary that attempts to get to the point of good old real life. The challenge of harnessing Ibsen’s narrative powers thus proves itself comparable to deciphering the main thesis of a Sociology B.A. There comes a point where a piece can simply be too rich and too diverse to permit enjoyment, lest a competent director be found who—by virtue of her own diffuseness, perhaps—can reel in the substantial elements of the piece.

A summarizing glance at the laundry list of themes reveals a story of desperation—a seemingly corrupt man in forlorn straits (lawyer Nils Snyder, played by James Snyder; if a taste of corruption is called for, the legal field is your delicatessen); a story of power politics in a private firm (incorporated by banker Torvald Helmer, played by Ian Kemp in his UT debut); a story of relationships rekindled in a reunion (between Nora Helmer, played by Fleming Ford, and Mrs. Linde, played by Kristy Johnson); and a story of female liberation in the face of chauvinism and male domination (embodied by Nora, who remains on the set for the reading’s entirety). The choices abound; where to begin?

Director Margaret Lebron, helming her first UT show, benefits from a strong cast, whose diversity in character matches the overwhelming diversity of the piece itself. The reading, performed in the Design Lab on the third floor of the Reynolds Club, starts out strong—too strong, almost.

A connoisseur of the piece, undoubtedly expecting to see Nora as the embodiment of female liberation that pervades the piece’s conclusion, might experience a slight bit of surprise to see how strong and forthright Nora appears in the opening scene. Contrary to an expected initial demeanor of flippancy and indecision (squeaking gleefully at the sight of money, letting forth such impetuous phrases as, “Them? They’re strangers. Who cares about strangers?”), she exhibits a bit of theatrical control over her husband, Torvald. He seems a bit sluggish in parrying her overt statements and sly demands—out of character, almost. Not that director Lebron didn’t account for it.

“There will be some stumbles and some hesitations,” she said in an interview. “The transitions and the interplay between characters is a lot rougher than in a play […] I like the fact that it is imperfect, and I hope that the people who know the play think I did it justice.”

I ascribe the sluggishness to rookie jitters and lack of Act I self-assurance on the part of Ian Kemp—something that slows his character initially, but soon dissipates as we move on to later scenes. If Kemp can count on one skill in his theatrical repertoire, it’s his ability to play a good drunk, to which the final scene can attest. He rides a roller coaster of quality throughout a good part of the piece, but comes to the final act and experiences an exponential decline of missed lines, exasperated glances, and general nervousness. He becomes the character that the audience just hates, yet still preserves the stamina at the reading’s conclusion to lapse into the dejection that abandonment brings with it. It can only serve to disperse the initial audience aversion and to cultivate the audience’s sympathy.

This makes sense, given the context of the reading. “The people in Ibsen’s plays just seem to be real and genuine,” Lebron said. “They’re just sitting, talking to each other. With Ibsen comes the birth of realism. Never before was the average middle class included on a stage.”

Undeniably, the most “real,” “genuine,” and enjoyable scene involves Ford’s Nora and Jack Tamburri’s Dr. Rank. The scene is meant to depict the disgruntled old Rank, nearing death (during which, paradoxically, Rank promises to engender himself in a state of seclusion—perhaps giving him the choice of when to die, but not necessarily making for a particularly festive death). Rank admits his subliminal and undying love for Nora; she, of course, finds his advances heinous.

The beauty in the scene is the way that the actors are able to keep the characters on edge. Nora has no inkling whatsoever of what’s to come, as Rank blurts out his confession at the most inopportune moment. The purpose of the scene, however, exceeds the mere externalities of it. The moment Nora exclaims that “there are people who you love, and people with whom you enjoy spending time,” we realize an underlying paradox in her marital relationship that can’t possibly be solved through a mere confession of love from a scraggly old man. She needs something more substantial, lasting, and above all, personal.

“I like the idea of Nora’s inner strength to want to go out and see what could have been,” Lebron said.

Tamburri and Ford give us that prelude to Nora’s inevitable step toward independence by convincing us rather than simply acting before us. Maybe the everyday, middle-class reality really does find its incarnation upon the Design Lab floor. Who knew that we were such interesting people? Lebron attributes the painfully realistic aspects to Ibsen’s desire to recreate them.

“I think the play is simply honest,” she said. “[Ibsen] intended it to be an honest representation of life. Society makes a person do these things that the characters do, and Ibsen really just finishes off the sentence that society has begun.”

For those of you who expected Oscar Wilde, or Shakespeare, or anything clean-cut, extravagant, and to the point, this piece may not be for you. But if you’re seeking to see your potential living room dramas played out in the most austere of theatrical settings, replete with complex underlying themes that challenge in their diversity even the deepest of French noir (not to mention undergraduate B.A. theses), then this one might just be right up your alley.