Review: ‘A Doll’s House’
No right or wrong at the Network
Pretty much everyone of a certain age has at least a passing familiarity with Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” Once required reading in America’s high schools and colleges, the highly controversial play has long been embraced by feminists and reviled by traditionalists, yet both more often than not missed the point the playwright makes.
It’s the shades of gray in Ibsen’s work that director David Wolber explores in Performance Network Theatre’s current production of “A Doll’s House,” and that’s what makes this production intriguing. For rather than take the “Torvald bad, Nora good” approach we usually see, Wolber and his cast give us a far-more nuanced and multi-layered interpretation. The result, then – especially in this post-feminist era – is a play with no clear-cut heroes or villains; instead we’re offered a far more realistic look at two people trying to make sense of their lives in a society filled with rigid expectations.
Married for eight years with two children, Torvald and Nora Helmer appear to be a typical, happily married, upwardly-mobile middle class couple of the late 1870s. Torvald, a lawyer, has recently been appointed manager of the local bank, a position of considerable status. As such, he lives by the strict code of conduct established and enforced by society, religion and the laws of the day.
Torvald’s prized possession is his seemingly naive, impulsive and self-absorbed wife, a woman who loves to spend his money as fast as he gives it to her. However, a loan Nora falsely obtained without his knowledge – a major no-no on several counts – comes back to haunt her when the note holder, Krogstad, tries to blackmail her into helping him keep his job at the bank. With no cash readily available to pay him off, what can she do? And what would happen if Torvald finds out what she’s done?
It doesn’t take long for her to find out.
The success of Wolber’s concept hinges on the performance skills of his actors – or more particularly, how believable they are at conveying the many shades of humanity their characters’ possess.
Most successful is the newly-blonde Carla Milarch – a nice touch, given our stereotypical expectations of ditzy blondes. There’s a twinkle in her eyes whenever Nora is masterfully manipulating her husband, and the false bravado she displays when confronted by Krogstad is equally well played. Even her lack of maternal concern over leaving her children rings true in this interpretation of the script.
Phil Powers – the man you want to slap silly every time he calls Nora cutesy, condescending names like “my squirrel” or “my songbird” – plays Torvald throughout most of the show with a very stiff, even-keeled sameness that serves in stark contrast to Milarch’s Nora. You can almost see the giant stick up his ass come loose when his rock-solid world crumbles in the third act.
Fine performances are given by Sarab Kamoo and Aaron Moore who play the couple’s polar opposites, Kristine (Nora’s childhood friend) and Krogstad. And once again – or should that read, as always? – John Seibert is spot-on as family friend Dr. Rank.
The tragedy on stage is certainly not the occasional flat or wobbly emotional moment found in the performances, but rather what we don’t see: the likely long-term outcome of Nora’s impulsive, self-centered decision. That’s the REAL point most people miss in Ibsen’s powerful drama, but here it rings loud and true.
“A Doll’s House” runs Thu.-Sun. at Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron, Ann Arbor, through April 23. Tickets: $20-$36. For information: 734-663-0681 or http://www.performancenetwork.org.
The Bottom Line: An old classic gets a refreshing perspective at Performance Network.
Review: ‘Pretty Fire’
Empty stage and one actress give birth to universal journey
Families. We all have them – whether we want to acknowledge them or not – and we all have colorful stories we could embarrass them with. But while most of us keep our cherished memories to ourselves, actress and playwright Charlayne Woodard shares hers in “Pretty Fire,” the first of three autobiographical plays about growing up as an African-American girl in Albany, New York.
Although I was dismayed by the fact that the characters on stage outnumbered the paying customers on opening night, I left the theater thoroughly entertained by the engaging stories and the charming storytelling abilities of Janee Smith, the actress who brought all 32 characters to life.
Under the expert direction of Gary Anderson, “Pretty Fire” is one of the fastest-moving two-hour shows in recent memory. With only a wooden loveseat placed at center stage, Smith delightfully draws us into Woodard’s life through this ancient oral art that was once the only method of communicating history and moral lessons from one generation to the next. She’s mastered it well, skillfully moving from one character to the next, never confusing them or her audience.
Each of Woodard’s five vignettes quickly grabs the audience’s attention. While the experiences she shares are uniquely her own, they are also universal.
The program opens with Smith recreating the story of Woodard’s 1955 premature birth – at only 1 lb., 8 oz. – and ends at the age of 11 with Woodard proudly singing a solo in her church choir. In between we meet two sets of loving grandparents, a younger sister, friends, neighbors and even a nemesis or two. And we learn what happens when youngsters are exposed to too much doggone TV!
Woodard’s life is not all laughs and Hallmark moments, however. She shares the important lesson her mother taught her after her first painful experience with the dreaded “n” word, and we see through her young eyes the “pretty fire” spawned by the Klan that scared her normally unflappable grandmother.
Ultimately, “Pretty Fire” is a celebration of family – warts and all – and I thank the Plowshares family for reminding us of that.
“Pretty Fire,” staged by Plowshares Theatre Company, runs Thu., Sat. & Sun. at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, at the corner of Warren and Brush in Midtown Detroit, through April 16, plus Fri., April 7. Tickets: $17.50-$25. For information: 313-872-0279.
The Bottom Line: C’mon, folks – support quality theater!