All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Intensity reigns constant as Kim Carson gives a breakthrough performance, and Ingmar Bergman’s compact adaptation of Ibsen’s classic, “A Doll’s House,” named “Nora” after its focal character, maintains a steady boil that makes Nora’s plight immediate and keeps matters always on the brink of coming to a perilous head.
Michael Mastro paces his production for Wilmington’s Delaware Theatre well. Events that rattle Nora’s security occur in quick series, but Mastro leaves critical time for Carson’s Nora to think about and plan for all that has the potential to crumble around her just when it looked as if all burdens were about to disappear, and her comfort was assured. He also allows the characters surrounding Nora — her husband, Thorvald Helmer; a family friend, Dr. Rank; a widowed school chum newly returned to town, Kristina Linde; and a shady businessman, Nils Krogstad — the space to fully establish themselves as individuals, making clearer the effect they have on Nora and Ibsen’s story in general.
Danger seems imminent in this production. Nora and her husband live in respectable gentility, bound to turn to luxury once Thorvald advances to an executive position at a bank, but Thorvald’s conventional morality, the sudden appearance of Mrs. Linde, and a hold Krogstad has over Nora threaten to spoil any expectation Nora has for happiness, ease, or contentment. Mastro never lets his production become frantic as Nora’s mind races to consider all she might do to prevent domestic disaster. Quite the contrary. It is the calm normality that prevails despite Nora’s feverish anxiety that makes all so ominous and intrinsically dramatic.
Nora’s agitation is well warranted. Her world, as she’s known it since coming from her father’s home to Thorvald’s, can collapse in an instant. It is to Carson’s and Mastro’s credit that Nora can maintain appearances, even as she confesses her apprehension to Mrs. Linde and Dr. Rank, while beset with so many cares. Carson confronts Nora’s concern in several ways. In conversation with Linde and Rank, she tempers reality with optimism, expressing a belief to Kristina that will all turn out all right because the more entrenched and single-minded Thorvald and Krogstad will understand the nobility of the motives that have come to haunt her and deal charitably towards her. In private, she wavers between girlish nervousness, an ostrich-like hope that her dilemma may disappear, and a maturing high-mindedness that will require yet untried courage to act on concretely should that become the most tenable course. Mastro’s production is effective because the audience is as on as much edge as Nora to see how others’ decisions will affect Nora and her well-being.
No matter what occurs, Carson’s Nora always remains a sympathetic figure. Even when we know some of the things she withholds from Thorvald, be they laying cash aside or indulging in forbidden macaroons, and when we’re aware of an unethical, possibly criminal, act Nora committed for pressing, unselfish reasons, Ibsen, Bergman, Mastro, and Carson keep us on Nora’s side.
“A Doll’s House” is a seminal work because it depicts a woman becoming conscious of how she lives and the forces that influence and contain her. When we meet Nora, she is superficial, at least in her usual approach to the world and the Norwegian society of which she is a part. Her beauty and cheerfulness win her universal affection. She sings and teases. She hides sweets she promised Thorvald she would not eat or even bring into the house. She spends extravagantly as if Thorvald had already begun the job that promises financial ease.
Nora is everyone’s playmate, a bright carefree figure who leavens the serious responsibilities of life, and Carson portrays her as being lighthearted to be point of being frivolous. Her answer to Thorvald about an ethical question shows naivety or a devil-may-care spirit and expresses unshakable confidence that one may bend the law here and there once in a while. We witness Nora stashing money in a box buried within a drawer only she opens, but it isn’t until Mrs. Linde arrives that we see Nora has a serious and even cunning side, one she summoned to get her and Thorvald through a difficult patch and about which she is proud, especially since Thorvald is unaware of what Nora regards as her resourcefulness.
All is done so naturally in this production, we realize the significance of handily foreshadowed events only after they’ve been spoken about. Hints to Nora’s situation abound before it is fully revealed, but they are subtle or seem to be a part of everyday business and behavior, so even as we note them, they don’t register as important until they become the “2” that combines with another “2” to make “4.”
Krogstad brings Nora’s soberer side to the fore. He wants something from Thorvald that, if not granted, will trigger his persecution, and prosecution, of Nora for her rash, if heroic, act.
Mastro involves us deeply in Nora’s plight by keeping his staging clean and uncluttered. Guests to Nora and Thorvald’s home enter unannounced (although they’ve been greeted at a door we don’t see by the Helmer servants). They lurk in the upstage background before their formal entrances and presage the trouble or disquiet they bring with their visit. Krogstad, on sight, seems menacing in his gauntness and oily demeanor. He paces and appears anxious. Mrs. Linde’s practicality and rectitude can often seem portentous. Linde is, in general, a positive character, yet her presence can be off-putting, perhaps because her unclouded view of the world disturbs Nora, who would think more hopefully about her situation if Mrs. Linde was not there to stress the gravity of it. Kristina also is keen on encouraging Nora to wake up and grow into a more responsible adult woman.
As Linde, Krogstad, and Dr. Rank drift, sometimes ghostlike through the Helmer abode, “Nora” becomes unsettling in a good way, one that generates suspense and makes you worry about Nora and her fate.
Everything Ibsen packed in his masterpiece is made more urgent in Bergman’s adaptation (translated by Frederick J. Marker and Lise-Lone Marker). By eliding Ibsen’s crucial scenes so they follow more pressingly after one another, Nora seems to be living in an hourglass, the sands of which do not favor a solution to occur in time enough to matter. This causes the tension in Mastro’s staging. Between the deadlines Nora faces, and Carson’s constant growth and increasing solemnity as Nora, we are riveted to the Delaware Theatre Company stage and watch with wonder and anticipation even though the majority of the audience knows full well how “A Doll’s House,” and therefore “Nora,” concludes.
The performance of Mastro’s cast contribute admirably to the tone of his production. All of the actors make a strong mark as they represent different figures in Norwegian society, Nora and Thorvald being the typical young couple on the brink of going from necessary frugality to being comfortably middle class, Kristina Linde being a woman who has had to cope with the world’s realities and wants to share her lessons and their practical usefulness with all women, Nils Krogstad being the man who as a young attorney was unforgiven for a misstep that was made with the same eye towards a more urgent goal as Nora’s and now must get by in a judgmental society that mostly remembers his sullied reputation, Dr. Rank being a wealthy, accomplished man of the world whose experience and perception has given him insight into the ways humans operate and an humorous attitude about the same.
The DTC cast understands their individual roles and play off of each other with great virtuosity. Scenes between Carson’s Nora and Chris Thorn as Krogstad, and between Carson and Susan Riley Stevens as Kristina, are particularly engrossing and endow Mastro’s production with the intensity I mention in the first paragraph.
Kim Carson has played major roles from Little Edie Beale in “Grey Gardens” and the transgender Yitzhak in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (Barrymore Award) to Dorothy Gale in “The Wizard of Oz” and Cinderella in a People’s Light panto of “Cinderella.” Her talent and ability to form a role was obvious, but Carson has never been as luminous as she is as Nora Helmer. This role moves her a to new level and puts her on a footing with other lead performers in the region, including her castmate, Susan Riley Stevens.
Carson measures her evolution as Nora expertly. She is all flirtatious, bubble-headed silliness in her opening scene with Thorvald, a combination of “little wifey” and a girl who is accustomed to being petted and spoiled, even if at times that means enduring a scolding that becomes mild or useless because Nora can’t muster the maturity to be serious.
Or won’t muster it. Behind Nora’s visible games, there’s one of manipulation. She knows she can charm Thorvald out of any display of bad temper and get him to do as she likes. Carson is an aware Nora who likes, and prefers, to be perky and a bit shallow to keep things light.
An early hint that there is more to Carson’s Nora than she reveals comes when Thorvald, after berating her for overspending, gives her 40 krone to fritter away at will. With a look of satisfaction, as if she’s conspiring with herself, Nora quickly and surreptitiously places the bounty into a box she has hidden under other whatnots in a parlor drawer only she opens. Her macaroons are stashed there too.
We now know that Nora plays at being the conventional, obedient wife, laying on the giddiness to make it seem she is guileless and without a thought, let alone a care, but she is a plotter and planner who has her own strategies for getting around Thorvald’s, or society’s, dictates and doesn’t mind some harmless cheating if it allows her a macaroon Thorvald, worried about Nora’s figure, won’t know about.
When Kristina appears, the contrast between Nora and her is stark. Though they went to school together, Kristina looks considerably older than Nora, and her aspect is more that of a serious, settled woman.
Kristina informs Nora of the hardship she’s encountered since her husband died and left her to her own resources. Mrs. Linde has learned reality the most stringent school one can attend, and she tries to impart of Nora that it might behoove her to take more careful stock of her home and marriage and be more of a partner and less of a pet to Thorvald, who is after all, rising in the world.
Carson reveals Nora’s pride and announces with sincerity that if Kristina was aware of the important deed she has accomplished, she would not be as critical or pontificating.
Kristina’s visit resonates with Nora. Carson abandons any pretense of lightness around her old friend. Her Nora will always be more buoyant than the severe Mrs. Linde, but she will honor their friendship by being more staid in her conversations with her.
Nora has no escape from seriousness when Krogstad stops to see her while coming to the Helmer home to see Thorvald about a bank matter. Krogstad knows Nora’s secret, that her good work was accomplished unethically. Driven to making ends meet in any way he can, some not so pleasant, by his brush with the law, Krogstad can be desperation, and his desperation can render him dangerous.
He is certainly so to Nora, who takes on a solemnity with which Carson informs every scene from Nora’s meeting with Krogstad on. Even when Nora is being the girl for the entertainment of Dr. Rank or dancing a festive tarantella to amuse Thorvald and Rank, Carson quickly returns to Nora’s earnestness and yearns to devise or come across a solution that will preserve life as she knows it for all, including Krogstad.
Carson makes the transition from frivolous mouse to harried, thoughtful woman. The change is sudden but subtle. Like Mrs. Linde, Nora can no longer afford to be carefree and let matters around her take care of themselves or be Thorvald’s responsibility. She must think. She must act. She must hope. She must engineer the outcome she desires.
This is a puzzle for Nora, who has neither the innocence nor the chance to take a mildly dishonest course to achieve her much wanted aim.
Carson lets us see the thought process. Nora, whose main occupation was choosing bright ribbons to wrap gifts she bought, is in a position that doesn’t leave a vacant minute when she does anything but consider her dilemma. She may divert her angst to throw Thorvald off the scent or to humor Rank, but the problem always sits on her brow. Even when she brings herself to discuss it with Kristina or hint her distress to Rank, she knows she is the one who must find a solution for her own predicament.
As Nora’s quandary becomes more intense, Carson becomes more intense. You can feel her energy coming from the stage. You wonder Carson’s Nora doesn’t burst from the crushing apprehension she feels and the impending calamity she faces.
Ibsen and Bergman are smart. They provide Nora a way out, a relatively free pass that can rid her of worry.
Ibsen is also cunning. He sets an outburst for Thorvald that awakens Nora more than Kristina ever could and puts her on a course to be the modern woman Ibsen wanted to project and that George Bernard Shaw admired so much, he put an example of a modern woman in almost all of his plays. (The actual model from Ibsen was Rebecca West from “Rosmersholm,” my favorite Ibsen piece and the one I would produce first if I ever had a theater.)
Carson surprises with Nora’s fateful pronouncement. Not because she doesn’t foreshadow Nora’s deepening thought processes, but because Nora is so definite, so clear in what she must do. With a steeliness that Mrs. Linde doesn’t show, Carson’s Nora comes to ultimate maturity and independence and delineates all that goes into her choice with intelligence and resolve that will brook no argument and take no pity.
Nora’s journey is complete, but so is Carson’s. She has covered the range from flibbertigibbet to determined woman, one who will strive to find her identity and purpose, one who can shun being a daughter, wife, and mother to see who she can be as Nora. Carson makes you believe Nora’s process and root for her more than ever. She is frightening in the best way in her firmness and vulnerable in the uncertainly she is willing to confront.
As Thorvald, David Arrow can be playful with Nora, but Arrow plants his feet in Thorvald’s more rigid, conventional side. He wants his wife to entertain him and show off her talent with a tarantella, but he wants more that he and she be pillars of society as he envisions that. Nora is to be a bank manager’s wife, and Thorvald expects her to rise to the level of respectability he believe that encounters.
Arrow is strongest in Thorvald’s most severe scenes. Thorvald is the root of his and Nora’s problems, even more than her illegal act. A change in his attitude, or some control of his anger, or at the least the threats he issues in anger, would make all the difference to Nora. Arrow’s Thorvald shows Nora’s hope could only be impossible.
Chris Thorn is a excellent Krogstad, edgy and sinister while letting you see the man pleading for exoneration of some kind underneath.
Thorn’s posture tells you most of what you need to know about Krogstad’s character. A tall man (or one who appears tall on stage), his Krogstad stoops a little in humility. The former attorney wears his shame is his carriage.
Thorn shows the dangerous sincerity of the desperate while revealing the decent person Krogstad wishes he could be under the surface. The important thing is you believe Thorn’s Krogstad would make Nora’s life a misery, and that is enough to drive a lot of the action and drama in “Nora.”
Susan Riley Stevens is the picture of a single woman who has had to make her own way in the world. She is consistently sober in look, dress, and aspect. Kristina, as much as anyone, is the catalyst for Nora’s life-changing decision, and Stevens presents her character’s case with the toughness of a mother who is no longer tolerating sloth or childishness and who pushes her chick out of the nest.
Stevens’s Mrs. Linde is straightforward and pragmatic in all dealings. She has experienced too much to be anything but realistic and rational, and she wants the same for Nora, whether Nora is ready or willing to copy Kristina’s hardheadedness or not.
Kevin Bergen is almost unrecognizable as Dr. Rank. Where is the youth who, even in his 30s and in serious roles, seems so openly boyish?
He is not on the Delaware Theatre Company stage. Bergen conveys all of Rank’s age, experience, and wisdom. While Nora and Rank each allude to Rank’s failing health, his condition is never totally spelled out, even though Bergman keeps Ibsen’s joke about Rank being invisible when he has to plan his costume for an annual masquerade ball a year away.
Bergman opts to keep Rank’s near mortal state an elephant in the room, but Bergen finds smart and subtle ways to show his character’s frailty and both the gallows humor and sagacity that comes with it.
Alexis Distler’s set is tasteful and gorgeous. You want to move in to Nora’s parlor. It’s so elegant while being cozy.
Esther Arroyo’s costume are appropriate to the characters, Mrs. Linde in a business suit while Nora wears some lovely dresses and gowns. The Italian costume Arroyo designs for Nora to dance the tarantella in is a particularly delight.
“Nora” runs through Sunday, February 22 at the Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street (by the riverfront), in Wilmington, Delaware. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets range from $45 to $30 and can be obtained by calling 302-594-1100 or by visiting www.delawaretheatre.org.