“You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: All I’m offering is the truth.”
– Morpheus in “The Matrix”
The great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (a bust portrait of whom is located in Wright Park) composed “A Doll’s House,” perhaps his best-known play, in 1879. A fabulous production of the play is now running at Tacoma Little Theatre, just a hop, skip and a jump from the Ibsen portrait in the park. Directed by Marilyn Bennett (of Toy Boat Theater), “A Doll’s House” runs through Feb. 10.
The play, set in the home of a middle class Norwegian family in Victorian-era Europe, is a slow burn that begins to flame brightly as it proceeds to the emotional fireworks at the end.
Nora (Annie Katica Green), the titular doll, is the wife of Torvald Helmer (Sean Neely) who has just been promoted to the position of bank manager. Christine Linde (Kristen Moriarty) comes looking for a position in the bank. One of the employees, Nils Krogstad (Jason Sharp) – a man with a checkered past – wants to make sure that his own position is secure. Both of these have ties to Nora. Christine is a childhood friend and Krogstad loaned money to Nora – in secret – for the family could spend time in Italy so that Torvald could recover his health after he’d worked himself almost to death.
“A Doll’s House” is rather like an elaborate, clockwork toy. All of the pieces move in precise, interlocking sequence, propelled by Torvald’s new promotion. As the cogs turn and the characters play their parts, Nora undergoes a dramatic transformation. The opening scene finds Nora giddily happy. “It is a wonderful thing to be alive and happy!” she says, as she dances about. Soon thereafter, however, Nora is plunged into despair – to the point that thoughts of suicide are in the cards. In the end, Nora emerges as a newly awakened human being.
This is a play that lingers in your mind. As I sat thinking of it, on the morning following the opening night performance, I found myself noting a kinship between Nora’s transformation and that of Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) at the beginning of the 1999 movie “The Matrix.” Neo takes the red pill, offered by Morpheus, and becomes disengaged from the artificial reality that he had been trapped in.
The Tacoma Little Theatre production of this classic drama is a masterpiece. Everything is solid. The set is a beautifully crafted replica of a Victorian drawing room, complete with high ceilings, busy wallpaper and a flowery floor painting. Sound, lighting and costumes are all superb. The acting is carried off so seamlessly that there is nothing to prevent the members of the audience from being carried fully into the story. With the TLT production, you come close to the sensation of being a disembodied spectator, transported into the midst of the Helmer home in the Norwegian City of Skien – there to witness the unfurling of a crisis that will break the family apart.
“A Doll’s House” explores what it means to be human in a social system that moves mechanically according endless rules. And, because the rule-makers are men, women find themselves confronted by towering limitations. The play seems endlessly relevant, but is especially so at this time of women’s’ marches and the “Me Too” movement, which highlight some of the ways in which women have yet to enjoy the degree of agency assumed by men in our social, economic, legal and political system. Make no mistake, however, “Doll’s House” shows men to be dehumanized by the artifice of systems built on ideologies – it just that the degree of dehumanization is greater for women.
For the most part, the characters in the play are fulfilling their social and gender roles without question, believing themselves to be little more than the roles that they play. Nora, however, seems well aware that she is playing a role – that of the “doll” – but is doing it out of love for Torvald because it makes him happy. She assumes that his love for her is absolute, that she is more important to him than life itself. The process of paying back a sum of money, which Nora borrowed in order to save Torvald’s life, has given her a sense of purpose, pride and independence. She is duly proud that she has anonymously and brilliantly performed this feat by scrimping to save money and doing extra work in her spare time. Having this project and keeping it a secret has given Nora a sense of being alive. In the end, Nora comes to the realization that she is little more than a thing that Torvald needs as a show of his prestige and position. She is the pretty wife that goes with the pretty house. Torvald considers Nora an ornament, a toy, an object. His terms of endearment continually diminish her. She is a squirrel, a skylark. She has little eyes, little hands, little concerns, little thoughts. Nora has gone from the house of her father to that of Torvald and has never been encouraged to grow up and form thoughts, opinions and ideas of her own. She is treated as one of the children.
When Torvald is not diminishing Nora as his little plaything, he is spouting moralistic propositions that he believes to be “truth.” Those who have gone wrong usually had a morally flawed mother, asserts Torvald. A wife should never keep secrets from her husband. A person of questionable character will always carry the taint of unrespectability about them.
When matters come to a head, Torvald rises up and becomes vicious – a self-righteous monster who assumes that a husband owns the power to punish his wife. He believes that Nora is obligated by “sacred duty” as wife and mother to obey him.
The moment jolts Nora into the realization that she has been living with a stranger. Instead of being willing to sacrifice himself for Nora, Torvald is concerned only for his sense “honor.”
Nora has the courage and the self-faith to value love above honor, and her own knowledge above moralistic formulas. Torvald’s failure to come through for her, when push comes to shove, shocks Nora into wakefulness.
Torvald is a robot, an artificial man stuck in an artificial system. And Nora wants out. She has come awake and refuses to go back into the dream. She now knows the dream for what it is.
Just like Neo in “The Matrix,” Nora has swallowed the red pill.
The moralism and legalism encountered in “Doll’s House” is an expose of the European decadence and inauthenticity that the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was writing about at the same time that Ibsen was crafting his plays. This is the same Europe would soon plunge itself into the maelstrom of the First World War because none of the belligerents was willing to sacrifice its sacred honor.
From Torvald’s moralistic view, Nora is deceitful in having taken the loan in secret (she says that he would never have allowed it had he known). Legalistically, according to Krogstad, Nora has committed a crime. In order to borrow money, Nora, as a woman, needed a man’s signature on the bond. She did not want to trouble her dying father, so she’s simply forged his signature. Krogstad knows that Nora forged the signature. Forgery is the same crime that he’d committed – the black mark that follows him. In the legal/moral system, Nora’s act is branded a crime, yet she knows that she acted out of nothing but love. Nora recognizes that the system is wrong, not she. She’d assumed that morality and law were meant to be just, but must now understand that they are brutal, mere instruments of domination.
After a Christmas masquerade, Thorvald reveals his true self. He drops the mask – literally and figuratively – when he finds out what Nora has done. He turns out to be as cruel and domineering as the law and the moral code.
Nora’s insight is that law and moral principles lack human love. The “truths” of the system fail human beings because they become instruments of domination. Those who cling to the system and its truths do so not for love of humanity, but because it rewards them with wealth and power.
Ultimately, however, everyone in the system is stuck in a complex of gender roles, workplace roles and status roles. They are so straight jacketed by laws, rules of behavior, codes of conduct, moral restrictions, conventional wisdom, ideology, religious dogma that they are like automatons, mechanically living according to pre-scripted lives – players in a game. They are hardly able to feel anything authentic. The one benefit of Nora’s having been kept in a state of perpetual childhood is that it has given her the childlike freedom of having feelings.
“Doll’s House” is rich in its expose of the above themes. However, it is not as ponderous as my description has been. The characters are funny, delightful and richly fleshed out. The story is spellbinding. It is just fun to watch. There are fascinating back stories and a couple of charming love stories, like the Platonic relationship between Nora and Dr. Rank (Mark Peterson) and the rekindling of an old flame between the two downtrodden characters Christine and Krogstad, who’d been in love with one another during a happier, more youthful time. They are the true lovers in the story. Those with little to lose are the ones that are free to love. Theirs is the most scrumptious kiss in the play. They are the model of what Nora and Torvald could have become, had Torvald been willing to sacrifice his honor.
One might also zero in on the theme of motherhood. Nora is nothing more than a fellow playmate, an elder sibling, to her own children. Their nurse, Anne Marie (Robin McGee), is their real mother figure. Anne Marie had also been Nora’s nurse. There is a hint of classism and tragedy when Nora askes Anne Marie what it was like when she had to give up her own daughter in the past.
Ibsen and “A Doll’s House” stand at the headwater of modern theater, in which characters are drawn with psychological depth. The play was explosive in its beginning, but it is still relevant, timely and engaging. The Tacoma Little Theatre production has taken this classic and crafted it into a gem-like piece of theatrical art. Go and see it.
“A Doll’s House” runs through Feb. 10. For scheduling, ticketing and other information, visit TacomaLittleTheatre.com.