****½–4.5 stars out of five
In recent theater seasons (before the world spun out of orbit during the pandemic), there have been marquis movie stars headlining several Broadway shows every season, acting as both a draw for the industry and a star-bolstering vehicle for big name actors looking to burnish their acting bona fides. The 2023-24 season has proven to be an exception to that trend, perhaps because so many big names (who shall remain nameless here) were, embarrassingly, shut out of “sure thing” Tony nominations in recent years. This year the only huge star to open a Broadway show is Oscar winner Jessica Chastain, heralding a remarkable, yet sparse production of Henrik Ibsen’s fin de siècle feminist masterpiece, A Doll’s House, all but assuring her not only of a nomination, but likely a Tony win.
What makes A Doll’s House so compelling is that, like any true tragedy, the downfall of its central characters is utterly avoidable and, certainly by modern standards, is rooted in absurd societal strictures. That a woman, Nora (stunningly portrayed—in every aspect—by Chastain), should not be allowed to borrow money or make her own financial decisions, especially for the sake of her family’s survival, seems inconceivable. But, this is what society dictated in Norway (as well as most countries in the world) in the late 1800s, and still does in many today.
Theater is a treasure because it not only allows us to examine historical viewpoints and artifacts, but perhaps leads us to better understand certain of our contemporaries through the very same lens. So what was Nora’s great transgression? She forged her dying father’s signature in order to save her husband’s life through medical intervention. Not to indulge in luxury or engage in a clandestine affair, no. Nothing immoral whatsoever . . . except that women of that era and culture were not allowed to conduct financial transactions without a man’s oversight. Her harmless (to contemporary eyes, anyway) forgery was altruistic. But Ibsen starts out by showing us a Nora who is “childish” (even in the eyes of her friends) and materialistic, caring only for indulging in Christmas gift-buying for her children and husband, Torvald (tightly played by the stellar Arian Moayed) who chastises her for her excessive spending: “Money slips through your fingers,” he scolds, further infantilizing this mother of two.
But the contextual image of Nora—and all women for that matter—is being eroded from the moment the audience walks into the theater for this production. Chastain’s Nora is seated on an armless chair, in a simple, long black dress and long black boots, with both her legs and arms crossed in a stern pose, as one of the stage’s two turntables slowly moves her in a long arc across the stage (the austere, plain set is by Soutra Gilmour). It’s a chilly opening and one that sets the tone of a strong and resolute Nora, a side we don’t usually witness until later in the play. We learn immediately that this is Chastain’s play, and she dominates it masterfully.
The other players fall in line behind her, with powerful performances by Michael Patrick Thornton as the heartsick and terminally ill Dr. Rank; as well as Jesmille Darbouze’s Kristine, a believably true friend to Nora and self-sufficient woman who has overcome her own adversities.
But it’s Okieriete Onaodowan’s multi-layered loan shark and seemingly slimy guy, Krogstad, who plays most beautifully opposite Chastain. Krogstad and Nora’s raging argument is subtle and fierce, as they sit back to back, allowing Ibsen’s dialog to do all the grenade hurling damage for them, as the lazy susan stage brings them slowly round and round again. Are we to understand these seemingly banal conflicts between men and women are cyclical and everlasting? It seems so.
Personally, I prefer Broadway shows, classical and otherwise, to be complemented with large, showy sets and innovative costumes. This is, after all, the capital of theatrical excellence. Minimalism certainly has its place in theater, and it’s usually on a college campus. But director Jamie Lloyd has given us a bare stage and simple black clothing in a production so powerful that it needs only tell us this story of the mistreatment and destruction of a decent woman using Ibsen’s stunning work and the cast’s perfect performance. Where other directors have failed with the bare stage approach (like last year’s uninspired Macbeth), this team leaves the audience stricken and wandering out into the streets like Nora, not sure at first where our feet are taking us. Wherever it may be, we know we (and she) have made the right decision.
A Doll’s House. Through June 10 at The Hudson Theatre (141 West 44th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues). www.adollshousebroadway.com
Photos: Courtesy of A Doll’s House