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Who's Afraid of Henrik Ibsen?

Not Ingmar Bergman. Nor Les Waters and Annie Smart, the English transplants staging 'Nora,' Bergman's cut of 'A Doll's House,' in La Jolla.

May 24, 1998|Diane Haithman | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

SAN DIEGO — One Saturday afternoon, in a cavernous rehearsal space above a sporting goods store at San Diego's University Towne Centre shopping mall, Les Waters and Annie Smart watched a marriage fall apart.

Waters, 46, and Smart, 45, are the director and costume/set designer, respectively, of the upcoming La Jolla Playhouse production of "Nora," Ingmar Bergman's 1981 stage adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's 1878 play "A Doll's House."

Bergman, better known as a film director than for his theatrical ventures, pared Ibsen's, three-act, three-hour drama down to one fast-moving, 100-minute act, removing servants, children, extraneous dialogue and stage business. The only thing Bergman didn't seem to cut is the pain, as the childish "doll" wife Nora and Torvald, her doting, paternal husband, uncover the harsh truths about their unbalanced relationship.

Waters and Smart--also a married couple, with more success--are natives of England. They moved to San Diego in 1995 when Waters accepted a position as head of the directing program at the University of California, San Diego. The university's drama department uses the La Jolla Playhouse during the academic year; the playhouse's own season is in the summer. "Nora," which opens tonight, is the first of this summer's six productions.

Run-throughs of this show tend to leave the participants emotionally drained--particularly Kellie Overbey as Nora, who's rarely offstage for a second, and cinched up even during rehearsal in a rib-crunching Victorian corset. "This thing is sort of like a nasty little machine," said Waters.

Smart found San Diego a ripe ground for research for "Nora." "[The play] is about those women who play at marriage, which I think is a very Southern California thing," she muses. "You get the right house and nice toys for the children, and the right upholstery . . . I think there is this curious thing, the little-girl women--the frisky squirrels, we used to call them.

"Coming from London, that was a huge shock--I haven't been around women like that since I was a little girl and my mother was around women like that. It may have something to do with it being a very nouveau riche area, there is this whole insecurity--well, that is another whole conversation!"

While the story is Ibsen's, domestic strife is hardly unfamiliar turf for the oft-married Bergman, 79. It comes as no surprise that he would choose to take his knife to "A Doll's House." "Nora" was first presented in 1981 as a part of a three-part series known as "The Bergman Project," which also included a Bergman adaptation of August Strindberg's "Miss Julie" and his stage adaptation of his own film "Scenes From a Marriage."

Neither Waters nor Smart ever met Bergman, and the couple are probably the pair least likely to ever become the model for a Bergman film. Both placid, soft-spoken and reserved, they seem to juggle dual careers and three young children--Jacob, 10, Nancy, 7, and Madeleine, 2, with relatively little strife. They met as students at England's Manchester College, and have been together ever since.

Of course, there's a bit of disappointment for Smart that went with the move to San Diego. Smart was just 18 months into "a very nice job" as head of the fine arts master program at Wimbledon School of Art when Waters got the offer to come to UCSD. With three children, the stability of tenure was an offer they couldn't refuse.

And how does Smart feel about Southern California now that she's here? "I've stopped trying to pack my bags every morning, that's as far as I'll go," she said, laughing. "Being in San Diego, we are hardly in the swim of things. It's not like being in New York or London. There isn't the opportunity for us to go out and choose good work to do."

But Smart quickly added that she has few complaints about La Jolla Playhouse. "It's great working here, they have really high standards. This is my second show [she was the designer on last year's acclaimed "The Importance of Being Earnest," also directed by Waters] and I've enjoyed both of them so far."

After years of freelancing, Waters also has mixed feelings about leaving the tenuous world of the freelance director to become a tenured faculty member. "[The position] is a relief, but it's also a trap," he said. "I mean, it's great to have the security of employment, but I think it can dull the edge. I think in this line of work you can become addicted to the insecurity of it."

Smart also remains torn between her old life and the new one. "I think, for me, it is not getting addicted to the insecurity, but you do get addicted to the freedom," she said. "That's what I hate about being here, that my choices are limited. Also, with the children--if we didn't have the children, I could hop on planes and be anywhere. And I don't want to have that option, in a way, while they're so young."

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