There’s no iconic slamming door in the staging of “Nora,” Ingmar Bergman’s revision of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” by Theater for the New South.
That is completely appropriate, because Bergman’s Nora remains ambivalent about her future, even the future of her relationship with now-devastated husband Torvald. The 1981 “Nora” strips down Ibsen’s groundbreaking but now creaky three-act play to its essentials, and in doing so, presents a Nora who from the very beginning is aware—and able to manipulate—the doll-like image of her held by her husband. Modern audiences are brought closely into a world that is still a reality for many couples, either intentionally or because they can’t figure out how to make it something else.
Director Blake Harris’s staging stays very true to what reviews of the original German production tell us about Bergman’s vision. The five actors sit on chairs against one wall of the room. There is no intermission in the 90-minute piece, and set changes are performed in full view of the audience. In the TNS version, costumes are from various periods. Nora begins in full Victorian splendor, but strips down, piece by piece, as the play progresses and ends in completely contemporary garb, while Torvald virtually reverses the process. (Angela Sweet’s costuming work is once again a major production strength.)
The five-person cast functions as a true ensemble, a tribute to Harris’s discipline and vision. Whitney Turner makes Mrs. Linde quite a bit more malevolent than usual, and this is a very effective choice. Her body language constantly shows a woman obsessed with self-protection and physically constricted by it. As Torvald, Matt Johnson gives us a man with whom, on the other hand, we sympathize more with than in the Ibsen original. Yes, Torvald is patronizing and parochial, and yes, his almost instant rejection of Nora once her secret is known shows him to be weak as well. But Johnson’s rendering of Torvald’s pleading with Nora in the final scene reveals the character’s dependence on her as well, and his desperation at her loss.
“Nora,” however, as does the original “Doll’s House,” belongs to the actress playing Nora, and Jennelle Gilreath is fully up to the task. Onstage virtually the entire time, she moves from seemingly frivolous, glittering “little skylark,” to a woman looking destruction in the face, to one making a monumental, cataclysmic decision. Beautiful one moment, haggard the next, Gilreath’s face is riveting as Nora plays, schemes, despairs, decides. This is an outstanding performance from the young actress.
The production is also enhanced by the haunting sound design of Tim Hinck and the functional, effective set by Rebecca Rouse and lighting by John R. Burgess. That the play is staged in an upstairs room of the former Niko’s Southside Grill continues TNS’s history of using found spaces, taking audiences out of their theatre comfort zones.
Nora leaves Torvald with some not-very-hopeful words about the possibilities of a “real marriage.” As true as they were when Ibsen shocked the world with his version, they still cause us to ponder the treacherous yet most deeply intimate link between two people.
$10 • 7:30 p.m. • March 21-24 • In the former Niko’s Southside Grill • 1400 Cowart St. • (423) 266-6511