In his return to the Guthrie after almost two decades, former artistic director Michael Langham has engineered a version of Ibsen’s tragic “A Doll’s House” that ripples with humor even as it stays true to Nora’s sad fate.
Langham follows the formula for success already established by the Guthrie’s new artistic director, Joe Dowling: Let the Guthrie’s regular company members do their adequate best in supporting roles and import superior talent for the all-important lead. Before coming to the Guthrie, Megan Follows (Anne in PBS’ 1986 “Anne of Green Gables” miniseries) had already established herself as a stellar Nora in Langham’s “Doll’s House” at the Atlantic Theater Festival in Nova Scotia. Reviving that role here, Follows brings the kind of energy, depth and mastery of craft of which Twin Cities theatergoers have long been deprived, and, judging from the surge in box office since Dowling’s appointment, for which they now appear to have an insatiable appetite.
Follows’ Nora is a complex and appealing blend of naivete and intelligence, and the actress lets us revel in Nora’s human side: her gluttonous craving for chocolate, her unbridled lust for money. Yet she also gives us an appreciation for Nora’s higher virtues, which are grounded in love and a sense of duty. The cruel irony of the play is that these are the very values she is accused of abandoning when she leaves her husband and children.
The other appealing aspect of Follows’ performance — and Langham’s direction in general — is an abundance of humor, which serves as an antidote to Ibsen’s dour, didactic side. From the suffocating masculinity of the set to the comical boorishness of the male characters, Langham’s “Doll’s House” immerses the beautiful and spirited Nora in a world where she can’t possibly survive.
The Guthrie regulars provide respectable support for Follows’ charming verve. As Nora’s husband, Guthrie veteran Stephen Pelinski turns in a marvelously thickheaded performance that capitalizes on Torvald’s almost military sense of moral superiority. At the beginning of the play, Torvald’s pronouncements about honor, integrity and unimpeachable morals sound like he could have been Bob Dole’s running mate. Nora’s departure isn’t as shocking to audiences as it once was.
Nowadays, “A Doll’s House” is often thought of as one of the first tracts of feminism, precisely because it features a woman strong enough to break free from the oppressive shackles of marriage and motherhood to forge her own destiny. But “A Doll’s House” is more a warning to men — and society in general — of what might happen if the patriarchs don’t wake up and smell the coffee — or, better yet, make the coffee. The Guthrie’s production makes this point perfectly clear.