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Theatre in Review: A Doll's House/The Father (Theatre for a New Audience)

Maggie Lacey, John Douglas Thompson. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

"The woman question," the burning 19th-century debate about the correct place of women in society, reverberates throughout both productions currently running in repertory at Theatre for a New Audience/Polonsky Shakespeare Center, but, watching them, you may be too gripped to notice. Reportedly, August Strindberg wrote The Father as a riposte to Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, which he loathed; what could women's independence mean to a man who saw the other sex as essentially predatory? In any case, seen on successive nights, the plays seem to be mirror images of each other. Each features a marriage built on a foundation of lies, and in each the wife gets the upper hand, upending, even destroying, the conventional family structure. Yet A Doll's House ends with Nora Helmer's famous slammed door and the provocative (for the time) concept of a woman on her own, while the death of Strindberg's title character is preceded by what can only be described as a case of soul murder. The strongest link between them here is the general excellence of Arin Arbus' twin productions, each of which is a taut, tension-filled psychological battle.

Of course, the actress playing Nora will dominate A Doll's House, and Maggie Lacey does not disappoint, speeding around the living room of her apartment like a wind-up toy, seeing to the house, receiving guests, and hiding her stash of candies in one of several discreet spots, the better to deceive her husband, Thorwald, who doesn't want her to have sweets. There's a manic gleam in her eyes as she spills to a confidante the story of how she clandestinely borrowed an enormous sum of money to finance the family's trip to Italy, which allowed Thorwald to recover from a serious illness. And there's a childlike greed in her anticipation of Thorwald's lucrative new job, which will, at long last, allow her to pay off her debt. "Can you imagine how it makes you feel to have lots of money?" she says with the anticipation of a child expecting an especially large haul on Christmas morning.

But there's another side to this Nora, captured in the slightly wary manner with which she keeps tabs on her husband. Their relationship is riddled with lies and, despite the constant bubble of energy and good humor on the surface, Lacey subtly signals how weary Nora has grown from managing him with untruths, prevarications, and tactful silences. Of course, she is naïve about many things -- as she so cruelly learns when the man who leant her the money returns to blackmail her -- but, in a very real way, she is the woman in charge, and the strain of cheerfully manipulating everyone in her household has begun to wear her down. In Lacey's hands, Nora is a far more complex woman than one remembers, whether she is telling off an unwanted intruder, lasciviously waving a pair of stockings in the face of a possible savior, or putting a pair of scissors frighteningly close to her wrist. And when her biggest deception is revealed -- she has forged her late father's signature to obtain that loan, a major illegality that could bring ruin down on her household -- and, confined to the half-shadows, she watches Thorwald explode in rage against her, you can practically feel her illusions slipping away.

John Douglas Thompson's Thorwald is a finely calibrated characterization, the evident age difference between him and Lacey working to good effect -- Nora always was a woman with father issues, and it makes total sense that she would marry an older man. From the beginning, his affection is tainted by patronization, seen in the kind of smile one normally reserves for cute children and precocious pets. (Thorwald is full of ideas about femininity that are backward even for the Victorian era, not least his assertion that embroidery is so much better than knitting because it requires more graceful arm movements.) Yet when Nora begins to fight back, trying to keep her blackmailer from being fired by Thorwald in order to save them all from scandal, his irritation, followed by fury, has an undertone of fear in it; the natural order of things -- as he sees it -- is being challenged and he doesn't like it one bit. Thompson is especially riveting when Thorwald discovers what Nora has done; the rage that follows, a noisy commingling of impotence and fury, makes unmistakably clear that he cares only for himself. At this moment, we don't need the sound of a slamming door to know that this marriage is irretrievably broken.

The rest of Arbus' production -- which makes use of Thornton Wilder's highly speakable 1937 translation -- is equally acute, especially Linda Powell as Christina, Nora's friend, who is appalled at the dishonesty she discovers in the Helmer household; Jesse J. Perez, exuding grievance as Krogstad, the perpetual loser who nevertheless has a hold over Nora; and Nigel Gore as Dr. Rank, the Helmers' regular guest, who, even in his dying days, yearns after Nora. Riccardo Hernandez's narrow, but beautifully detailed, set, features the audience on two sides, drawing us intimately into the action. Susan Hilferty's period-perfect costumes and Daniel Kluger's original music and sound design add a great deal to the atmosphere.

Pay close attention to Marcus Doshi's candlelight-inspired lighting, which in the final scene features a cold shaft of early morning sunlight that grows larger and larger as Nora, barely speaking above a hush, explains to Thorwald that she no longer loves him and has no intention of staying with him. Dawn is breaking over the Helmer household and it's a harsh one. Arbus closes with a tableau of a distraught Thorwald facing his children; it's a powerful reminder that life goes on after that closed door and it will be full of challenges for everyone.

Thompson takes the lead in The Father, as the captain of a military regiment who, despite his commanding ways with his men, is driven to ruin by his strategically astute, endlessly scheming wife. The sticking point between the spouses this time is the Captain's plan to send their daughter to boarding school, away from what he sees as a household filled with irrational females devoted to spiritualism and other bizarre pursuits. Laura, his wife, is equally determined to foil the plan by any means possible. "It's a war. The house is on fire already," the Captain says, unaware of just how ugly things are about to get.

The Father inevitably comes across as more old-fashioned than A Doll's House, since it takes place before the advent of paternity tests and hinges on the fact that, at the time, it was impossible for a man to know for certain that he was the biological father of his children. (One only had the word of one's spouse -- in Strindberg's view, a poor substitute for empirical proof.) Laura plants this uncertainty in the Captain's head, employing it to drive him to the edge of madness, and then uses his erratic behavior as Exhibit A in her case, made to the local doctor, that her husband is losing his mind. "You've found a way to commit a murder that took place entirely in the unconscious," notes Laura's brother, a minister, in horror.

Thompson charts the Captain's breakdown, step by harrowing step, until, locked in a straitjacket, he rolls around on the floor in an animal-like state. His total surrender is both disturbing and impossible to turn away from, climaxing in a kind of fit that also works as a physical expression of total despair. Next to his tour de force, Lacey, as Laura, plays a kind of dramatic rope-a-dope, cannily circling her prey and inserting new stabs of doubt and fear into his head, then rearing back in mock horror at what she has wrought. Once again, Arbus gets exceptional work from her cast, including Laurie Kennedy as the Captain's pious, elderly nanny and Gore as the doctor who becomes Laura's unwitting partner in destruction.

Hernandez redresses the set with plenty of animal-head trophies, underlining the point that The Father is a kind of hunting expedition, with human prey. Hilferty's costumes are once again fine examples of period wear and well-suited to each character. Doshi's lighting includes some flame effects and, as in A Doll's House, some rather daring experiments in low lighting levels to simulate a world illuminated by candlelight. Kluger again supplies original music and such effects as offstage voices, a thunderstorm, and winter winds.

Either of these productions is worth seeing; taken together, they form a vivid diptych of a society unnerved and uncertain about how to deal with powerful women. Thanks to these incisive productions, we feel the psychological cut and thrust that leaves such deep and indelible wounds on those who take part. Each is, in its way, a psychological thriller, and, thanks to this fine company, each will keep you watching breathlessly. -- David Barbour

(1 June 2016)

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