Ibsen’s A Doll’s House may be a part of the basic theater canon, but it creates some special challenges in live theatrical production. Gulfshore Playhouse has as usual assembled a fine cast that ultimately meets these challenges to create a fine and sensitive version of the play.
Although considered modern when it was written, A Doll’s House is, like its main characters, bound in nineteenth century conventions. The plot seems contrived to modern sensibilities, the text is wordy, the famous final scene represents an unconvincingly sudden character development on the part of the heroine. The feminist message, shocking in its day, is laid on with a heavy hand.
The strength of this production is that it is less about message than it is character-driven. Beth Hylton appears in the famously challenging role of Nora, a woman made to play the doll to the men in her life. Nora is protected and cosseted, but treated as a toy and a possession. Yet Nora is no saintly martyr. She is selfish and willfully naïve, and she participates, as much as her husband, in their creation of an artificial domestic happiness. Watch Ms. Hylton in the opening scenes as she describes her life to an old friend. She projects a manic, almost neurotic cheerfulness that betrays her words and warns of trouble to come.
As husband Torvald Helmer, Larry Bull is no monster. For all that his Torvald is controlling, even overbearing, he also can be seen to be a conscientious man trying to fill what he conceives to be the proper masculine role. His affection for his wife is manufactured, but it is not intentionally cruel. He is, in some ways, as trapped and as warped as is Nora is by social and personal circumstances. Granted that it is more difficult to sympathize with the oppressor than the oppressed, Mr. Bull nevertheless shows us a human side to Torvald.
Despite our supposed twenty-first century enlightenment, there are Nora’s and Torvald’s around us today, men and women - not bad people - unhappily attempting to live out an artificial ideal of married life. Though the conception of the ideal is perhaps sometimes different than in Ibsen’s time – though often no so very different - the unhappiness it engenders is just as real. This is the key to the longevity of Ibsen’s work and the strength of this production. Sociology aside, this is a play about recognizable individuals – limited and twisted by their situation, but fully realized as characters.
After one forgets the polemics and the dated theatricality, the image of Ms. Hylton’s Nora, - concealing the hollowness at the core of her existence while striving, striving, striving to please – haunts the memory.