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A Doll's House & The Father

Would Nora, a woman of a certain age and untrained for any occupation except manipulating men, walk out of the doll's house walking into a future of prostitution. The wife in The Father achieved her independence more thoroughly and with greater wit."
— August Strindberg biographer Sue Prideaux explaining why Strindberg felt his wife was more pyschologically truthful than h Ibsen's Nora and why it rankled him so that Ibsen's A Doll's House was so much more successful than his The Father. The older Ibsen on the other hand admired and respected the younger man and never took his hostility seriously. And according to this double bill's program notes hung a portrait of him over his writing desk, insisting that he couldn't work "without that madman staring down at me.
Thompson & Lacey
Maggie Lacey and John Douglas Thompson in A Doll's House (Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
August Strindberg"s response to the older and more successful Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House was to write his own unhappy marital drama, The Father. Thanks to The Theatre for a New Audience's insightfully directed rotating repertory production, theater goers now have a chance to see just how different the path chosen by the Swedish Ibsen's and Norwegian Strindberg's wives were and yet how despite the different situations how many elements the playwrights used to dramattize the crisis that ended both marriages.

With a terrific repertory ensemble taking on all the characters makes seeing both plays essential for fully taking advantage of the opportunity. appreciating especially rewarding. When I first heard about the production, I was tempted to split covering it with one of my trusty colleagues to avoid two long subway rides to Brooklyn. Fortunately, several marathon viewing days enabled me to make a day and evening of it, seeing A Doll's House in the afternoon, and The Father at night. The result: a wonderfully immersive experience.

It's fascinating to see Lacey's Nora turn from fluttery "doll wife" to determinedly independent woman and emerge as the always determined to have her way Laura in The Father. Thompson's Thorwald and Captain are equally unmissable. His Thorwald is a relatively understated until near the end. However, in The Father but he gives full reign to the high octane dramatic chops that have earned him a reputation as one of the contemporary theater's best and most vivid Shakespearian actors.

The translations used for this double bill make it even more special. For A Doll's House, it's Thornton Wilder's 1937 adaptation which pretty much faded into the shadows after the success of Our Town. As it turns out the New York Times drama critic's praises for Wilder's translation remain valid. Wilder did indeed get rid of the play's "stiff Nordic fripperies" and", despite the the play's dated motivations this version does manage to keep Nora's slamming the door on her stifling marriage "full of the fire of life" as well as "a spiritual triumph." The Father's sociological issues are of course also dated, and even more so given the melodramatic plot development. However, Scottish playwright David Greig's new and more colloquial version paired with A Doll's House makes for a fresh and absorbing look at both plays.

Both plays can be summed up as dramas about a woman dealing with marriage in male dominated society. Nora in A Doll's House loves her husband, as she did her father before him, so her determination to leave the marriage doesn't come until her husband's response to the revelation of her once illegally borrowing money awakens her need to be true to herself. The marriage in The Father has been a battleground for most of its 20 years, and while both women's chief skill was to manipulate men, Laura's use of that weapon was much more cold and calculating. (More detailed plot synopses have been added after the production notes. Synopses).

These aptly chosen adaptations deepens out insight into the common threads running through both plays. The Father was indeed born out of Strindberg's belief that a wife wanting to achieve her independence needed to act more believably and practically than Ibsen's Nora. His Laura, though married much longer, was not suddenly disillusioned about but a long-time strategist to control her husband rather than be controlled by him.

TFNA's repertory staging not only shows these two very different women in action, but points to many similarities in the structures of both plays. Money and how it made men all powerful over their wives in Ibsen and Strindberg's day is an important aspect of both marriages. A prop figuring prominently in the plot complications is a letter — in Nora's case, if it gets into her husband's hands, it will endanger her happy marriage; for Laura it's a weapon to undermine her husband's dream of another career. Another similarity with different cause and effect is the husbands' history of life threatening illness. In A Doll's House that causes Nora to illegally borrow money to pay for a health restorative stay in a warm climate. In The Father, it's a set-up for making Adolphs emotional meltdown credible.

It's also interesting to see the repertory casting of different but equally important characters. Jesse J. Perez is magnificently angry and distraught as Krogstad, the bank clerk who can disgrace the Helmers if he reveals that Nora signed a bank loan illegally. He is as impressive as wise and quite likeable Pastor who happens to be the Captain's brother-in-law in The Father. Nigel Gore is also very strong as Doctor Rank who would like to be more than Nora's friend, and Doctor Ostermark who is manipulated by Laura to bring The Father to its tragic end.

Director Arin Arbus has made sure that no matter which side of the seats at either side of the stage have perfect sight lines. Riccardo Hernandez has furnished A Doll's House to reflect a cozier, happy home. The Father's set is less homey to reflect that this home also doubles as the Captain's office for his cavalry duties. Bravo is also in order for the costumes, lighting and sound design work.

While I've seen some wonderful versions of the Ibsen, I can't remember a more touching finale than this one, especially the scene where Nora gives back her wedding ring to Torvald and asks the devastated Torvald to return his. I'l admit that I've always found The Father something of a yawn, hopelessly dated and excessively melodramatic — even with Frank Langella who's currently at his usual riveting best in a new play, which just happens to have the same name. But seeing it in this context didn't have a boring moment, full of unforgettable moments like John Douglas Thompson making the Captain's explaining his crying to his scheming wife as touching as Shylock's memorable speech in The Merchant of Venice?
Captain: Don't men cry? We have eyes? We have hands and arms, senses, thoughts and passions. We suffer don't we? I eat the same bread as a woman. I bleed under the same blade, I burn and freeze in winter and summer just like you. If you cut me open am I not as red inside as you? Why shouldn't I cry? Why not? Why?
Even if you can't manage an all-in-one booking, seeing Maggie Lacey and John Douglas Thompson, playing both sets of husband and wives is worth two trips to Brooklyn. Though I lean towards starting with the Ibsen, it doesn't really matter which you see first — as long as you see the complete production..

A Doll's House & The Father
In repertory at Theatre for a New Audience Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place.
Both directed Arin Arbus
A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Thornton Wilder
Cast (in order of appearance: Maggie Lacey as Nora, Kimber Monroe as Ellen, Christian Mallen as Porter, John Douglas Thompson as Thorwald, Linda Powell as Christina, Jesse J. Perez as Krogstad, Nigel Gore as Dr. Rank, Laurie Kennedy as Anna, Ruben Almash as Ivar, Jayla Lavender Nicholas as Emmy
Choreographer: Sam Pinkleton Running Time: 2 Hours plus 1 10-minute intermission

The Father by August Strindberg, new English version by David Greig, Cast (in order of appearance): Jesse J. Perez as the Pastor,John Douglas Thompson as the Captain, Laurie Kennedy as Margaret, Christian Mallen as Nordstrom, Maggie Lacey as Laura, Nigel Gore as Dr. Ostermark, Kimber Monroe as Bertha
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermisson
Production Details for both plays
Scenic Design: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume Design: Susan Hilferty
Lighting Design: Mrcus Doshi
Composer/Sound Design: Daniel Kluger
Hair and Makeup Design: Dave Bova
Projection Supervision: John Knust
Dramaturg: Jonathan Kalb
Fight Director: J. Allen Suddeth
Stage Manager: Diane Healy
From 5/10/16; opening 5/24/16; closing 6/12/16 Performance schedule:
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer, at 5/21/16 matinee and evening performances

A Doll's House Plot Synopsis: Everything is happy in the Helmer home. Nora Helmer loves her two young children and her husband Torvald. He adores her. Things are about to get even better with his promotion to bank manager. But Nora has a secret: She once secretly borrowed a large sum of money so that her husband could recuperate in Italy from a life threatening illness. Since he deplores any type of borrowing, she's been secretly paying it back bit by bit from her household allowance. Nils Krogstad, the man on from whom Nora has borrowed her money works at the bank, a job he desperately needs to redeem his position in life after being accused of forgery. It turns out that Nora too is guilty of forgery, having signed her father's name to secure her loan (something women at that time could not do). Krogstad now threatens to disgrace both Helmers by going public about her forgery, unless she dissuades Torvald from his plan to fire him. With the help of her widowed friend Christine, Nora tries to influence her husband, but he thinks of Nora as a simple child who cannot understand the value of money or business. But the truth comes out and Torvald's reaction is all focused on how it affects him and without any attempt to understand that her crime has all been for him. Krogstad drops his claim, but it's too late to save the marriage. Nora now sees that her marriage has been a sham and that she must leave her "doll house" existence in the interest of her own self-worth.

The Father synopsis: The troubled marriage Captain Adolph, the title character, a scientist and officer of the cavalry, and his wife Laura comes to a head over their disagreement about the education of their daughter Bertha. Laura wants her to stay at home and become an artist and Adolph wants her sent a way to be educated for a teaching career. He argues that the law is on his side since women sell their rights to make such decisions when they marry. But Laura has always been tough and wily enough to get her way despite the restraints of the society she lives in. She now strikes a fatal blow to Adolphs claims, with the suggestion that he may in fact have no such right-- adding the issue of paternity to this battle of the sexes. The drama turns fierce when Laura provokes the maddened Adolph into causing a fire which results in the local Doctor deceived by the cunning Laura, and even his beloved Nanny Margaret putting him a straightjacket. He's saved from the asylum by succumbing to a stroke. The captain's meolodramatic have a good deal in common with the story of Agamennon who wa killed by his wife after sacrificing their daughter; alse Pentheus, who in The Bachaii was destroyed the former female worshppers herejected.
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