There are no props in director Jamie Lloyd’s version of Henrik Ibsen’s drama “A Doll’s House” — no sets, no costumes (just plain contemporary clothing in dark blue), not even a curtain. There’s no dress to be mended, no mailbox, no letter to be read, no cigar to be lit, no children. There are no acts, though Ibsen wrote his 1879 play in three. All you see when you enter the theater is a vast, empty shell of a Broadway stage, the bright houselights exposing the building’s industrial brick walls whose paint has faded from show to show, and a few wooden chairs stacked in back.
Oh, and there’s Jessica Chastain, her red hair pulled back, seated in a wooden chair on a turntable and slowly circling the stage in a simple blue dress. It’s hard to say if she’s in character as she comes round again and again — if she’s Nora, that is, a dutiful wife with three young children who, as the play opens, is finally about to get a reprieve from relative poverty because her husband, Torvald (Arian Moayed), has been promoted at the bank where he works — or if it’s Chastain herself placidly looking out at audience members as they file in and get settled in their seats. Over time, one by one, the rest of the cast comes out, taking chairs off a stack onstage, placing them here and there, and sitting quietly with their backs to Chastain.
So what’s left in the theater when almost all of what the audience expects — especially from a Broadway play — is stripped away?
In this revival, what’s left is a beautiful, spacious clarity about what this oft-produced play is about, who these characters are, what they mean to one another and how they may (or may not) impact audiences of today. There is nothing but dialogue pared down by playwright Amy Herzog (the rare woman interpreting “A Doll’s House,” at least on Broadway) and played with great skill by most of the actors in the production.
So the story is clear, unmuddied by all the usual strutting and fretting: Nora’s happiness over Torvald’s promotion is cut short when she’s blackmailed by Krogstad (Okieriete Onaodowan), a colleague of Torvald’s at the bank, who Nora secretly borrowed money from years ago when Torvald was sick, forging her father’s name on the promissory note because he would never approve and she needed to save her husband’s life. Krogstad knows that Torvald, in his new position, will fire him, and he wants Nora to intervene, or he’ll expose her crime to her husband and the world, and Nora — and Torvald by extension — will be ruined.
What is Nora to do but commit suicide, since she’s sure that Torvald will otherwise give up everything to remain by her side?
But, of course, let’s go back to that actress on the turntable, so placid that audience members hardly notice her when they enter the theater.
In this production, Nora hardly stands, though the other characters move freely across the stage. Seated in her chair like a silent doll, she sometimes orbits the space, which is an apt metaphor for a woman who has never, ever, imagined breaking free from the gravitational pull of her husband, the expectations of marriage, the limits of society. Turns out that, like most women of her time (if, in fact, we’re still in the 19th century), Nora’s ideas have been formed by others — in particular, controlling men — starting with her father when she was a child. This pull, this force, has Nora in its grip up until this night, on this empty stage, when even an audience facing in her direction doesn’t notice her.
But words, however brilliant, can be deceiving, and so the other thing left on this otherwise empty stage is the effect of one body on another — body language — another kind of gravitational pull, but one easily overlooked, ignored or sidelined by the shiny theatricalities we’ve come to expect from Broadway productions.
The relationship that begins to wake Nora up to the terrible truth of her life is the one she has with her husband’s best friend, Dr. Rank, in this production lovingly realized by Michael Patrick Thornton. The chemistry is unmistakable: it’s raw and joyful and sweet and utterly relaxed. Rank, so clearly a good man who sees Nora for who she is, makes her feel so at ease that her laughter, as she leans towards him, is not so much happy as it is raunchy — Chastain’s Nora comes alive around Rank, and they sparkle in other’s presence. Maybe if Rank had not told Nora that he was going to die — maybe if he was going to keep coming to visit, instead of saying goodbye for the last time (and admitting that he loves her) — she would have continued to overlook the world-changing truth and power of their simple intimacy.
In this naked production, Dr. Rank’s last goodbye to Nora is the crack in the façade of her life. From this moment on, it becomes clearer and clearer to Nora that everything she thinks and believes and feels about her life is false. This is the truth that she never suspected: Her husband wouldn’t give anything up for her — he can’t even sit beside her for more than a minute before spinning off into his own universe to which she doesn’t belong.
It is a thing of beauty, this play, and a relief to be spared the spectacle in favor of a kind of pure view of what Ibsen meant to convey. Chastain’s performance is restrained, and yet you can witness each unique moment register on her face (there are a lot of silent tears and, because there are no props, no handkerchiefs to soak them up with!). And Moayed as Torvald is convincing as a man who sounds like a loving, devoted husband but is, underneath, selfish, shallow, ungrateful and narcissistic.
Up until the end of the play, the fact that it could be 1879 up on that stage or 2023 is not in the least bothersome — in fact, it’s thrilling. Marriage, motherhood, money problems, friendship, familial secrets, even white-collar crime — these are revealed to be timeless, universal experiences. But what comes across as a little less than cathartic, in 2023, is Nora’s final realization that she must break free from everything she’s known to go find herself. It’s done as a moment of liberation — a call by a woman, for all women — to stop orbiting and find a new path, free from the constraints of old ideas.
For Nora, this is an important first step towards awakening and enlightenment, and in 1879, it must have been as thrilling as it was scandalous. For the rest of the women in the audience, though, one hopes we’re a little farther along.