A light, airy voice from somewhere backstage opens the production of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” playing this weekend in Trumbull College’s Nick Chapel.
A beautiful, blond high-society woman stumbles onto the stage, clad in a bright red dress, arms filled with gifts for Christmas. Her uneasily optimistic attitude fills the theater and immediately puts the audience on edge. Calista Small’s ’14 masterful portrayal of Nora, the wafty 17th-century equivalent of an Upper East Side wife, emotionally affects the audience despite her character’s obvious flaws.
The show, directed by Moses Balian ’13, chronicles the financial status of a married couple, Nora and Torvald (Jason Perlman ’11), after Nora borrows a significant amount of money, unbeknownst to Torvold, from his employee, Krogstad (Michael Rose ’13). Nora’s various attempts at trying to hide this from her husband are successful until he hires Nora’s friend, Mrs. Linde (Isabel Siragusa ’11), with the intention of firing Krogstad. In an attempt to save his job and repair his reputation, Krogstad attempts to blackmail the hopeless Nora. Her position in the household as “first and foremost a wife and a mother” sets her up as Torvold’s pet. Nora’s internal, and ultimately external, quest for independence runs throughout the show.
Small’s onstage presence is reminiscent of Mia Farrow in “The Great Gatsby,” from the feigned compassion to the breezy voice to the contentment with her clearly oppressed position. Instead of a dashing, chivalrous infatuated Robert Redford, however, her “male savior” is an eerily attentive and creepily controlling Torvald. Perlman’s depiction of this disingenuous, almost sleazy character only highlights the themes of the play.
“A Doll’s House,” often called the first true feminist play, is able to reconcile its imperfect characters and the audience’s attachment to them. The female characters in particular are the driving forces behind the show. They advance the plot and carry the bulk of the dialogue (particularly Nora), while the male characters seem as if they are almost along for the ride.
Up until the end of the show, there is little indication of the feminist undertones. Most of the set, costumes and lighting are in earth tones and grays, except for Nora, who beigins the show in a bright red dress. Over the course of the play, her ensemble changes into a red-and-black gown, and she finishes the performance in black-and-white clothing — an indication of her character’s change from an overly feminine caricature of a wife into an independent human being.
The incorporation of the set into the production also subtly enhances the story. Almost all of the props are seamlessly woven into the show. When Nora fiddles with the gold Christmas decorations, it exemplifies her mishandling of her financial affairs. The stove becomes a place where she retreats when her attitude toward another character becomes cold and distant in order to avoid talking about her money troubles.
This production of Ibsen’s masterpiece is ripe with symbolism. At the end of the show, when Nora leaves Torvald in the ultimate reversal of power, her coat becomes a stand-in for her newfound independence. It is these moments of subtle representation — coupled with the actors’ powerful portrayals — that ultimately make the show a success.