A Doll’s House

My familiarity with Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was limited to the 1973 film starring Claire Bloom and Anthony Hopkins. Even so, it had been many years since I’d seen it, and while I remember thinking it was a solid film, my recollection of the its themes and plot points were vague at best. 

So, when I entered the Hudson Theater on Broadway on May 6, 2023, my mind was all but completely clear of any potential comparison. I was well aware of the ecstatic reviews the play had received, and that this new staging starring Jessica Chastain had received six Tony nominations. To be honest, I mostly went because of my admiration for Chastain’s ability to inhabit a wide range of characters and the thought of seeing her on stage, in a new environment, was irresistible. 

Still, my expectations were moderated by the face that the play—a 19th century, slyly progressive, sneakily feminist affair—might not translate as well to a modern audience. It did not take long for those expectations to be upended. The show was set to start at 8PM sharp, but at 7:50, there was Chastain, on a nearly bare stage, sitting, expressionless, on a  simple wooden chair that was rotating in a wide circle around the stage with the year “1879” projected on the wall behind her. This circling continued for ten full minutes, with her five fellow cast members following suit, one by one taking up a chair and joining the rotation.

Jessica Chastain on the rotating stage of the Hudson Theater.

While the effect may sound simple, it was mesmerizing. The music playing during this preamble to the play’s official beginning was ominous, and the starkness of the setting felt both minimalist and avant-garde. Right at 8 PM, the play officially began. Initially, I was surprised at how lightly comedic the early portion of the play was. (My memory of the film was that it was a heavy mother.) Midway through the performance, I found that my recall was correct, but the art of getting to the weighty subject matter would be of the slow burn variety. 

Ibsen’s play is about a married woman named Nora (Chastain) who grew up with privilege, lost it after marrying her husband Torvald (played brilliantly by Arian Moayed, who is a million miles from away from his character on Succession) and having two children, but was on the cusp of regaining her wealth once again as her spouse landed a plum job as a bank manager. 

The darkness seeps into A Doll’s House slowly. We learn that when Nora’s husband fell ill as her father was simultaneously dying, that Nora secretly took out a loan of $4800 (a massive sum in 1879) from a man of questionable character named Krogstad who would now be working under her husband at the bank. 

Knowing of Krogstad’s reputation, Torvald, who sees himself as a man of the utmost integrity, expresses his intention to relieve Krogstad of his duties, and replace him with Kristine, an old friend of Nora’s. Now, not only is Krogstad going to lose his position along with his reputation, but there is also the matter of the loan, which Nora cannot pay back in a timely fashion. 

Krogstad threatens Nora with blackmail if he doesn’t get his money, or at least retain his job through Nora convincing Torvald to keep Krogstad on. To further complicate matters, in the process of obtaining the loan, we discover that Nora forged her father’s signature on a legal document—a fact Krogstad is well aware of. 

From there the play becomes a treatise on the lack of agency women had in the 19th century, a time when women were largely dependent on men to provide for them, and also assumed all the decision-making in the household. Over the course of the story, Nora’s desperation becomes suffocating, leading her to a shocking decision that once committed will change the lives of her family forever. 

Were this a simple retelling of Ibsen’s most famous work, I’m sure it would have been effective as a mere period piece about the way things used to be for women nearly 150 years ago. The genius in this revival is found in small, but significant touches. While this new version (directed by Jamie Lloyd) is certainly still very much Ibsen’s play, there are modest changes to some of the language (courtesy of playwright Amy Herzog), and the use of the spinning stage creates an effect that is both disorienting and full of tension. As the play moves towards its finale, the stage lights above the performers slowly descend from the ceiling to just several feet over the heads of the cast. Maybe the walls aren’t closing in on Nora, but the figurative roof being lowered creates the same effect. It’s a brilliant choice by Lloyd, and as Nora and Torvald are left alone in the play’s final moments, the lights ascend back up to the ceiling, as if to represent Nora’s revelation that there is only one way to achieve her freedom–to leave.

While other characters (including a dutiful nanny and a sickly doctor nursing an unrequited crush on Nora) come in and out of the scene, Chastain’s Nora is almost always at the center of the stage. While any version of A Doll’s House is going to be greatly dependent on the actor playing Nora to deliver a tour de force performance, this telling is doubly so. The other actors get what one might call “breaks,” and it is Chastain that must carry the lion’s share of this story’s delivery. That being said, Chastain’s fellow cast members are more than up to the task of holding court with the lead. Of particular note is Michael Patrick Thornton, who plays an ailing doctor who carries his torch for Nora to the grave. Thornton—who is wheelchair bound in real life—is drily funny for much of his performance, but his final moments onstage are quietly devastating.

As I mentioned before, I have long admired Chastain’s ability to inhabit such a wide range of characters over the course of her remarkable career, but I think it’s here in Ibsen’s drama that she may have delivered the performance of her life. As played by Chastain, Nora is impulsive, selfish, even cruel. But more than anything, she is human. It’s almost unimaginable to think of how many plates the actor must have been spinning in her head to make Nora so deeply, believably flawed, yet understandable and compelling despite the darkness of her final choice: to walk away from her family and cast herself to the wind rather than continue living a life in which she feels more like a figurine (hence the play’s title) in a home that does not belong to her, with a man who, however decent he may be, never made a real effort to understand her.

Late in the play, as Torvald has learned of Nora’s indiscretion, he rages at her for the risk she has created in their lives, even as Nora argues that it can’t be wrong to have provided for her family by any means necessary when both her husband and father were in dire straits. Nora believes that Torvald should love her more for her effort to sustain their lives, not less. And when Torvald explains that he should not have to give up his dignity for her love, Nora responds icily that “Thousands of women have done it.” A line spoken so perfectly that the audience erupted in spontaneous applause. 

In that moment, you realize that while much has changed in the 144 years since the time in which the play takes place, that sense of unfairness, of male rule, still persists—making the play far more relevant to our current day than one might have expected from simply reading the text.

As if to bring that point home even further, the play ends in a fashion that I can only describe as astonishing. As Nora rises from her wooden chair, rebuffing Torvald’s plea to stay with him and their children, she walks towards the back of the stage. A large door raises up, and Jessica Chastain walks out into the New York City night, with the sights and sounds of the modern world visible to her Nora, and the audience. 

In that moment, it’s as if the play has been transformed into a time machine, one that delivers this 19th century character into a world where so very much has changed and so very much has not. As that realization washes over the audience in incredibly dramatic fashion, there is nothing that can be done except allow the gasp of astonishment to release from your lungs. As it did, in unison, as this extraordinary play comes to a riveting close. 

I’ve been taking in film and television (in mass quantities) for the entirety of my life, but seldom have I gone to see plays. Being a small-town midwesterner, I haven’t often been in the position to appreciate great theater. What I can tell you is that, from my admittedly limited point of view, I have never seen anything like it. As Chastain and her gifted fellow cast members returned to the stage, I was fortunate to have the vantage point of seeing into the leftmost corner of the stage, where Chastain could be seen blowing her nose and fighting back tears. As she came front and center to acknowledge the audience (and for us to acknowledge her), she could be described as no less than completely emotionally spent.

She was not the only one. Those of us who rose from our chairs and clapped furiously (that is to say the entire theater) were, in that lengthy, applause-filled moment, experiencing a sensation that I can only describe as transformative. In fact, I find I’m still taking in the full measure this revival’s greatness and of Chastain’s performance. While it’s true that I lack the experience to make the sort of comparisons to other productions that seasoned theater critics can, all I had to do was look around me: from the New York City theatergoing regulars to the theater neophytes like myself, in that moment, we were all one in our awe.


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