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Bergman Adaptation Restructures 'A Doll's House'

Theater review: Staging of Ibsen classic pares down complexity of story and size of cast.

May 26, 1998|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LA JOLLA — Nora's departure from her marriage at the end of Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House" marked the beginning of the end of sentimentality in domestic drama. But Ingmar Bergman apparently felt that Ibsen didn't go far enough. In "Nora," his 1981 adaptation of Ibsen's drama, Bergman tried to strip "Doll's House" down even further.

As the staging by Les Waters at La Jolla Playhouse reveals, the intermission-less "Nora" shores up "A Doll's House" in some areas but weakens it in others.

"Nora" certainly aims a bright light--literally so, in the final scene--on the central conflict between dependent Nora, who has suddenly awakened to her plight, and her paternalistic husband, Torvald.

In this rendition, Kellie Overbey's Nora is a smart and audacious flirt in the teenage style, not an infantile child. Douglas Weston's Torvald isn't as fussy and pompous as some. Unfortunately, their accents are far apart--Overbey's is much closer to California, Weston's to England.

Translated by Frederick J. Marker and Lise-Lone Marker, "Nora" strengthens Torvald's character by deleting many of the obnoxiously condescending terms of endearment with which he tags his wife. This is a helpful omission; these lines can sound absurd.

Torvald is also a more vulnerable and sexual figure here. The final scene takes place in a shared bedroom, when Torvald is still in bed. As a standing Nora explains her imminent farewell, we see Torvald's nude profile.

It's implied that a recent sexual encounter has been a part of the process by which Torvald has "forgiven" Nora for her illegal indiscretions on his behalf. Unlike other portrayals of this couple, "Nora" makes clear that Nora will be giving up sex (this being Victorian times) when she ends her marriage.

On the other hand, earlier in that scene, there was a dramaturgical advantage in the way Ibsen removed Torvald from the stage as he read the shocking letter that revealed Nora's past sins. In "Nora," Torvald absorbs the complicated contents of the letter and starts berating Nora, in full view of the audience, all within a few seconds. He must have taken a speed-reading course. This scene was already awkward, with its two contradictory missives from the same source, but Bergman's adaptation makes it even bumpier.

Bergman also reduced the cast of characters. Besides Nora and Torvald, we see only Nora's friend Mrs. Linde (Gail Grate, dignified and restrained), the blackmailer Krogstad (Bill Camp, not as slimy as some Krogstads) and the dying hanger-on Dr. Rank (Philip Kerr), whose sexual interest in Nora is signaled a bit too strenuously by a cigar-lighting scene.

There are no children or servants. This is probably attractive to producers, who don't have to meet as much of a payroll. But the loss of the children deprives the drama of some of its complexity as well as most of its remaining sentimentality.

It's true that the children appear in only one scene in the original and don't have any specific lines--and that Nora rationalizes her final exit partly on the grounds that she's not a fit mother. Still, the onstage presence of her children makes her sacrifice much more tangible--and the play even more pertinent. The idea of a woman leaving her marriage is no longer as remarkable as it was when Ibsen was writing, but the issue of what to do with the children still remains thorny.

The loss of the servants means that we no longer hear a conversation Nora had with Anne, the nurse who looked after her when she was a child and now tends Nora's own offspring. Anne had released her own child to the care of strangers in order to supervise her employers' children; this scene introduced thoughts about class that are missing from "Nora."

On a more mundane level, the absence of servants in "Nora" means that callers just walk into the room without any introduction--almost as if they're spirits, though their words and actions remain corporeal. It's easy enough to suspend disbelief about this, until the final, plot-altering letter is delivered by Mrs. Linde, instead of a messenger. Given her role in the plot, her presence as the letter-bearer would have raised questions, but no one says a word.

By the time this happens, we understand that realism is not a priority. As designed by Annie Smart, the rear wall for most scenes is a screen of thick, vertical red and white stripes that match the red and black dresses initially worn by Nora and Mrs. Linde, respectively. A large Christmas tree is only faintly visible behind the screen, as opposed to its prominence in the original script. If stamping out sentimentality is the goal, however, one wonders why the tree is there at all.

* "Nora," Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends June 21. $21-$39. (619) 550-1010. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

Kellie Overbey: Nora Helmer

Douglas Weston: Torvald Helmer

Gail Grate: Mrs. Linde

Bill Camp: Nils Krogstad

Philip Kerr: Dr. Rank

Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House" adapted by Ingmar Bergman. Translated by Frederick J. Marker and Lise-Lone Marker. Directed by Les Waters. Sets and costumes by Annie Smart. Lights by Chris Parry. Sound by Jeff Ladman. Stage manager Glynn David Turner.

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