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Welcome to 'A Doll's House' Where Emotions Get Personal

Theater review: An uninhibited rendering of Ibsen's Nora makes this adaptation of the classic a powerhouse production.

May 03, 1997|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

NEW YORK — When Janet McTeer enters as the obedient Norwegian housewife Nora Helmer, she hits you right off as a true manic depressive. Set in 1879, the play opens on her return from a Christmas season shopping spree, and she is agitated with pleasure as she displays her purchases for Torvald (Owen Teale), her husband who wears mutton-chop sideburns and a paternal smile. It soon becomes clear that something is terribly, terribly wrong with this woman's feverish high spirits. And it is equally obvious that although this new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House" by Frank McGuinness adopts a contemporary tone, it is that rare production that illuminates every crevice of a well-known play with the kind of purity that seems to summon the very soul of the playwright.

Directed by Anthony Page, "A Doll's House" comes direct from London's West End and has garnered almost universal raves since it opened at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway last month. The play is performed with so much passion and intelligence that it transcends its function as propaganda for a socio-sexual revolution and seems intensely personal. In McTeer's nerve-racking performance, Nora is a woman in denial verging on a dangerous breakdown. Nevermind that she is the prototype for all of the mad housewives who are still breaking down today. She is unique in her revelations.

McTeer is an attractive, lanky woman who uses every muscle in her tall body to convey Nora's anxiousness to please her husband. Her nervous tics and giggles are abrasive, but they serve as a magic lantern that projects how distressed Nora is in her own skin. The tics get worse as she begins to realize that her comfortable life with her husband is based on a series of facades and pretenses that sit in a profoundly uncomfortable position to her own being.

Nora is out of control; when an old friend (Jan Maxwell) who has fallen upon hard times comes to visit, Nora listens to her friend's sad story of penury with concern, then spontaneously confesses that it is "gorgeous having pots and pots of money." Her hand immediately flies to her lips in one of the catalog of naughty child gestures she employs.

Once Nora begins to fall apart, she tumbles with all the unattractiveness of a hysteric. This is a performance without vanity, one motivated only by psychological truths. Nora is under a great strain, striving to keep up appearances--as that of a pliable sexual object with no will or opinions of her own. She's also keeping a secret from her husband that she believes, if revealed, would either mean her death or her glorious rebirth in a heavenly new world.

The strain of it all is too much; practicing a dance in the living room, she is holding herself together by a thread that is unraveling right before our eyes. Under the not fully comprehending eyes of Torvald and his admiring friend Dr. Rank (John Carlisle), she collapses in a fit of giggling hyperventilation, smashing her tambourine violently against her body, her hand going to the top button of her dress as if she will die if she does not loosen it. It is a harrowing sight.

McTeer is surrounded by an excellent cast; without a high level of support she could not deliver such an extraordinary performance. Teale is particularly crucial; his erotic response to Nora's behavior provides pivotal understanding of this complicated union.

McTeer's triumph comes at the play's end. Her partnership with Torvald has been shattered by a moment of blinding truth. She understands, finally, that her life has been forged from a pair of unholy contracts, first as a young girl in her father's house and now as a woman in her husband's. This is difficult for Torvald to understand. Their bargain, after all, has been mutually agreed upon, as well as most convenient. But Nora has seen the dark side of the deal, and she can no longer play her part. Her manner becomes simpler. She quietly informs Torvald, with only a few gesturing tics left in her exhausted repertory, "You see I've been wronged. Badly wronged, actually. I've lived like a beggar. I've just performed tricks."

When Nora leaves her house at the end and shuts the door, you can experience the finality of that sound as it would seem to the shattered Torvald, as well as in its well-known, larger context. As has been famously noted, the sound of Nora's door was heard around the world. It marks the end to the civilized world's last bastion of legalized slavery.

"The performance was too much. . . . Strictly speaking, it went beyond the demands of art." This is what Torvald says after watching his wife perform a desperate tarantella as a means of distracting him from the letterbox where a bit of devastating news awaits. These words can also apply to McTeer herself. Her performance seems to go beyond the demands of art and into a zone as wild and frightening as life itself.

* "A Doll's House," Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St., New York, (800) 432-7250. Through July 27.

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