On Saturday evening, The Commonweal Theatre opened its 25th anniversary season with panache, simultaneously celebrating its 16th Annual Ibsen Festival.
This year's Henrik Ibsen production, "A Doll's House," was in fact the world premiere of Minnesota playwright Jeffrey Hatcher's lively, fresh and thought-provoking adaptation of the play, the fourth such commission in as many years.
The scene is set more simply than directed in Ibsen's original, allowing the audience to focus on the story at hand. Stef Dickens plays Nora, and the layered, barred, door-like structures in the opening scene symbolize her (and her family's) status as a comfortably bourgeois bird in a gilded cage. But her past secrets and personal journey toward self-truth would be revealed like the peeling of an onion in the course of the drama.
The language of Ibsen's original play, in translation, can seem formal, even stultified, to audiences today, but Hatcher has engagingly breathed life and energy into it by intermixing excerpts from the script with modern American language and colloquialisms.
My quibble would be that he overuses the latter, effectively diminishing their effect, but generally his approach greatly enhances the accessibility and upbeat pacing of the play, keeping it moving inexorably toward its inevitable conclusion.
Hatcher also blew the dust off the characters, played by Commonweal resident actors, clarifying Nora's relationships with Dr. Rank (the Helmer family friend, played by David Hennessey), Torvald (her husband, played by Daniel Stock), Christine (her friend, played by Megan K. Pence), and Krogstad (her "personal banker," played by Jeremy van Meter).
Rank's deadpan humor is brilliantly conveyed by veteran actor Hennessey, and the physically intimate attraction between Torvald and Nora convincingly shown by Stock and Dickens. Add to those the school-days squabbling between Christine and Nora, Nora's "trying on" of different "selfs" with Krogstadand a jealous streak between Dr. Rank and Torvald, and these characters become flesh-and-blood real.
Dickens, shown first as Nora playing with her stick dolls in the opening scene, is instantly sympathetic, yet clearly child-like, yet later she shows her development as an actor in her portrayal conveying the internal collision between the "perfect" life she cultivated and its direct collision with her inner self.
The ending of the play seems rushed or sudden, perhaps to convey Torvald's experience. Anunexpected departure from Ibsen's costume directions is shocking. Upon further reflection, though, it makes perfect sense — more sense than Ibsen's, really, but Ibsen could hardly have pulled it off in 1879. The otherwise-period costumes clothe a living, breathing production that is accessible and engaging.