A Doll's House, by Henrik Ibsen
There is a thick film of half-digested plaster and pressboard coating the streets of downtown West Palm Beach this week. It is all that remains of the once-proud scenery that actress Margery Lowe, in a frenzy of dramatic overachievement, chewed and swallowed and regurgitated and chewed again, as though it were an especially succulent cud, at the opening night of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House at Palm Beach Dramaworks. There is much good to be said of A Doll's House, and of this production of it, but given Lowe's freakish humping of the spotlight, it all seems quaintly beside the point.
Ibsen is "the father of modern drama;" A Doll's House represents the birth of feminism in the modern drama; its writing mostly stands up in the theatrical clime it helped to create. Fine, fine, fine. Matt Corey's background music is redolent of anxiety and brooding peril, and Michael Amico's set is perfectly evocative of both the play's literal literal location (an upscale living room in Norway circa 1879) and its figurative one (a belle epoque doll house). Brian O'Keefe's costumes are intricate, accurate, and beautiful. The actors dutifully act, and I suspect that, in rehearsal, director Bill Hayes at least tried his hand at directing.
Not enough, though — not enough to keep petit little Margery Lowe from making Henrik Ibsen her bitch, quite against his will. If A Doll's House is chamber music, Lowe is a walking mosh-pit. If A Doll's House is a knife-fight, Lowe is a bazooka. If A Doll's House is Tokyo, Margery Lowe is Godzilla.
She plays Nora Helmer, a young bride with a secret. A Doll's House begins on Christmas Eve, just as Nora arrives home with presents for her husband and children. She is happy — dreadfully and ostentatiously happy, singing chirpily as she sets about making herself comfortable, talking to herself, reminding herself of just what a wonderful life she's leading. So happy is she that, for the first five minutes of the show, she elongates the last syllable of each sentence she utters and inflicts it with a hideously annoying vibrato. When her husband, Torvold (Michael St. Pierre), enters from his study, she's all atwitter, fawning over him, showing off the trinkets she bought for the children and the help. He scolds her for being a spendthrift, and then she suckers more money out of him. So it goes.
Through it all, Nora is quite obviously lying — to herself, and consequentially to her husband. Since A Doll's House has been playing around the world for well over a century, I hope I'm not giving too much away by explaining that, years earlier, Nora took out a large loan from a man named Krogstad (Greg Weiner) in order to procure much-needed medical treatment for her husband; that her husband knows nothing of this; that Krogstad is a man with a terrible reputation; that her husband is all set to become Krogstad's boss; that the moment he does so he intends to let the man go precisely because of his terrible reputation; that Nora forged a signature when she borrowed Krogstad's money; and that Krogstad knows it and won't hesitate to blackmail his way to job security. Moreover, I hope I may reveal that Nora's old friend, Christine Linde (Nanique Gheridian), has come calling this Christmas Eve, and that many years in far-flung lands have left her tired, poor and alone. As she seeks to find a place for herself in her old home-town and rekindle a long-aborted romance with Krogstad, Gheridian and Weiner turn in the best performances of the night: understated, sincere, and lovely.
But they are completely overshadowed by the walking meltdown that Margery Lowe insists on being from curtain-up to curtain-call. The whole idea behind A Doll's House is that Nora Helmer has so completely bought into received notions of wifely duty that she doesn't realize how little her painfully oblivious husband appreciates her or the sacrifices she's made, and how completely she has subjugated her identity to please him. But Lowe's performance throughout the first act shows us none of this. Her Nora is obviously acting, and not well. Her gestures are so big, her voice so full of such sugary affectation that you get the sense she'd rather dispatch with acting altogether and hang a sign around her neck reading: "This Is A Sham."
In the second and third acts, as Nora Helmer's secret edges ever-closer to revelation and her mind begins to disintegrate, her outsized performance begins conforming to the script's ever-larger emotional dimensions. Torvold's indifference ceases to look like a failure of actorly give-and-take and takes on the appearance of the ingrained sexist buffoonery it's meant to be. He knows something is off; he just can't acknowledge it directly. To do so would blemish the smooth public face of his marriage, which already looks far too wonky for his taste. So he stares on, blank as a Norwegian snow bank, perhaps attributing his wife's sudden derangement to some kind of "female trouble," as Nora tearfully insists that he not retrieve a fateful letter from the mailbox because she simply must practice the Tarantella now, at this instant, and most emphatically with his assistance, or else she'll, she'll, she'll — she never gets around to saying what before she chokes to death on her own histrionics.
Such a scene is a little scary and a little sad, but it's far less of either than it could be if we were on Nora's side from the get-go. Sad to say, this Nora's side is a loud and unpleasant place. It is not until the play's famous denouement, in which Nora lays out her proto-feminist statement of independence, that we finally feel a little of the intensity that Ibsen's masterwork has inspired in generations of theatergoers. For a hundred years, audiences have fervently hoped that Nora will go out into the world and build a life for herself. At Dramaworks, we hope with equal fervor that she'll get a grip.