In “A Doll’s House” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, artful acting and poignant dialogue combine to shed new light on the gender politics of 19th-century Europe while commenting on concerns that still plague us today.
Originally written in 1879, Henrik Ibsen’s masterful commentary on the contemporary oppression of women proved incendiary in popular culture. When actresses refused to portray the leading lady, Nora, and theaters closed their doors to the playwright’s work, Ibsen was forced to invent an alternate ending to appease his colleagues so that his ideas could transfer from page to stage.
Finally, in 1889, “A Doll’s House” was first produced in its original form in England, and its impact was tremendous. The play expressed the personal grievances of women through art, and it proved to feminists that their issues and insecurities prevailed outside of their own private lives.
Now, fresh off of a West End run in London, a cast of capable actors is breathing life into a piece intended for a Victorian audience and imbuing it with new purpose and meaning in the 21st century. Despite the Harvey Theater’s elegant, if fading, façade and grandiose mood, “A Doll’s House” feels immediate and intimate thanks to the tightness of the rotating set and the delicacy and care of the performers’ presentation to the public. Because the players have worked together for several runs, they appear comfortable with one another, and their chemistry allows for the narrative to seep into a realm of near-reality.
The lead actors bring a fundamental depth and savvy to their roles, as they understand the complexity of the play’s historical moment. Hattie Morahan (Nora Helmer), Caroline Martin (Kristine Linde), Dominic Rowan (Torvald Helmer), and Steve Toussaint (Dr. Rank) all grasp their characters and comprehend how to demand the strongest reaction from their audience.
Morahan is especially noteworthy as the seemingly childish doll in her dollhouse. She keeps the stress between her desire for liberty and her duty as a housewife always on display and can simultaneously embody a villain and a victim of her era. Rowan is also dynamic as Nora’s husband, whose subtle misdemeanors—especially his attempt at marital rape in the second act—demonstrate how men expected servility from their spouses and how commonplace chauvinism was in a 19th-century household.
However, Toussaint provides the most relatable, and therefore the most heartbreaking, performance. Instead of emphasizing Dr. Rank’s cynical and disillusioned perception of the world, he contours his lines to craft a sophisticated, emotional outline of a man on his deathbed who is deeply in love with a fickle, brainwashed woman.
While staying true to the play’s Victorian dress and setting, “A Doll’s House” communicates a message that is still relevant today. As spectators, we see how the pressures of the quotidian influence interactions between loved ones, and we notice that everyone has a breaking point. The cast expertly deals with desperation and the natural inclination to flee in the face of conflict. Even self-centered Nora evokes sympathy as she shakes unrelentingly, a look of panic on her face as she is entwined in her own schemes when the curtain falls in the first act.
There is humanity within the discussion, body language, and implicit undertones of this rendition of Ibsen’s statement on socially accepted misogyny. The characters are people crammed into a fake Norwegian existence in the late 1800s, yet they also represent the manufactured propriety and conformity that we experience now. In this way, BAM’s “A Doll’s House” is more than a look to the past—it is an insight into our present that makes viewers rethink the future.
“A Doll’s House” plays at BAM’s Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St., through March 16. Tickets for non-subscribers start at $25.