A streamlined version of A Doll's House races through Writers Theatre | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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A streamlined version of A Doll's House races through Writers Theatre

Even without a door slam, Henrik Ibsen's classic hits home.

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To view Nora Helmer's girlish high spirits as proof of immaturity is as much a mistake as viewing Blanche DuBois's flights of nostalgia as proof of weakness. Both of these indelible dramatic heroines reach their breaking point (or in Nora's case, a breaking-away point) only after making huge—and unsung—sacrifices for their families. True, Nora's forgery of her dying father's signature in order to get the loan she needed to save her husband Torvald's health is technically a crime, whereas Blanche drowned in legal debt shepherding sick relatives on their "long parade to the graveyard." But neither are weak women: rather, they are women worn out by the pretenses of weakness piled on top of their overworked shoulders—pretenses the immature man children who surround them insist upon to assuage their own egos.

When things fall apart for both, it happens quickly. The speed of Nora's transformation from seemingly naive and childlike wife and mother to a woman bent on seeking her own destiny is reflected in Writers Theatre's current 90-minute adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House by Sandra Delgado and Michael Halberstam. In Lavina Jadhwani's nimble, acerbic staging, Cher Álvarez's vivacious Nora doesn't get much time to breathe before the enormity of what she's facing as a result of that long-ago forgery crashes in on her. Meantime, Greg Matthew Anderson's self-important Torvald can't see beyond his own desires for a toy wife. As feminist writer-philosopher Lou Andreas-Salomé has noted, his "delight in simple gaiety and loveliness is . . . a conventional person's reluctance to face any serious struggle which could disturb the aesthetic somnolence that allows him to enjoy life with self-satisfaction."

Some of the subtlety is undeniably lost in speedy translation here, but what's gained is a sense of urgency. Arnel Sancianco's green birdcage walls suggest both the frailty of the Helmer home and the thinness of social barriers through which secrets will inevitably seep. The corollary characters—the anguished creditor Krogstad (Adam Poss) who tries to bring Nora down, Nora's steadfast but lonely old school friend, Christine (Tiffany Renee Johnson), the dying Dr. Rank (Bradley Grant Smith), and the housemaid Anne Marie (Amy J. Carle), who sacrificed her own children to care for other people's—get perhaps less stage time than in the original. But that only makes their observations on class and gender more pointed and timely.

Sometimes the show feels as if it's straining for contemporary cred, as when Nora lets loose with profanity for its own sake. But the end (spoiler alert: that famous door doesn't really slam) puts a rather more optimistic spin on the next chapter for Nora. As for Torvald? Well, maybe it's time he hangs up his narcissism and learns to love other people, in all their fullness and their flaws.  v

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