Theater Review: An Intense, Heart-wrenching 'A Doll's House' At Monomoy Theatre

By: Joan Tacke Aucoin

Topics: Local Theater

Erin Cessna as Nora in “A Doll's House” at the Monomoy Theatre. JESUS LOPEZ VARGAS PHOTO

Skylark or frightened dove about to be devoured by a predatory hawk? Marriage, motherhood, petticoats, and romance on demand mark the four corners to Nora Helmer's city apartment, circa 1960. Her husband Torvald loves her so much he wants to keep her all to himself; a wife is a man's most treasured possession, he says.

Monomoy Theater presents a captivating and heart-wrenching production of Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll House" filled with intrigue, glamour, and 1960s charm. Accomplished director Mary O'Brady has chosen Simon Stephens' English version first presented in London in 2012. The cast, set, costumes, lighting, and tuneful radio songs are so

attractive. Pastel yellows, greens, and aqua blue accenting are easy on the eyes. Yet the geometric box-like shapes repeated throughout the Helmer's home represent that Nora has no place to hide, no place to run, except out the front door. For a loving, talented, independent woman who seeks understanding and passionate conversation from her husband, she finds herself trapped child-like in a playhouse of old-fashioned male-female role expectations.

Ibsen based his drama, written in 1878, on a personal friendship with Laura and Victor Keiler. True to the modern tragedy theme, Laura illegally signed a bank note to help finance her husband's medical care. As a writer, Laura asked Ibsen for help in publishing her own book in order to repay the loan. Ibsen refused. Laura forged the check anyway. Husband Victor learned the truth, or shall we say his wife's lies, divorced her, and sent her off to an

asylum. Ibsen felt so badly for this woman's shame, he immortalized her as Nora Helmer. Imagine, a woman asserting herself in a man's world. The Keilers eventually wound up back together with their children, she as an accomplished author.

"A Doll's House" premiered in Denmark in 1879 and was met with sold-out audiences and social outrage in a male dominated society. How far have we come in liberating men and women in the last 140 years to self-actualize as their true selves? The debate continues at the Monomoy Theater.

Erin Cessna plays Nora, the beautiful caged songbird yearning to breathe freely, with tenderness and angst. Nora happily enters on Christmas Eve, presents in hand, with a taste of chocolate now and then. Life is grand now that her husband has recovered from his illness. The good doctor's suggestion that a year in Italy would do them all good was the cure for all. Wasn't it fortunate that her late father signed the bank note financing their trip. Or did he? Cessna truly sparkles in displays of wide ranging emotions at a time when "a wife cannot borrow money without her husband's consent."

Tristan Rewald is any woman's fine-looking generous, handsome husband, a lawyer and bank executive who has power over so many people, fully recovered and delighted with his songbird wife, children, and dear friends. Men must be respectable, appearances matter, false notes are unacceptable, bank staffing changes are a matter of doing business. And won't my wife look sexy dressed as a gypsy at the holiday costume party? Tristan's tipsy romantic moves on his wife are pure fun from a guy's point of view. His scathing condemnation of a lying wife was frightful.

Cessna and Rewald have passionately embraced Ibsen's complicated characters. Both actors draw the audience's emotions into a spider's web of imprisoning male-female roles.

Nora's childhood friend Kristine Linde lends an ear to Nora's secrets. Laura Axelrod becomes the widowed BFF offering advice but also needing a job at the bank. Mark Lawrence plays Dr. Jens Rank, very thin and sickly, sharing his little time left with true compassion.

Christopher Bailey reveals a complicated bank employee Nils Krogstad who holds Nora's forged bank letter close to his vest as shark-bait to all involved.

Emily Qualmann is nanny Anna to two of the most adorable brother and sister actors, Florence and Jacob Carlson, who move easily in and out of the family dynamics as Jon and Emmy Helmer. The Carlsons also appear in the Chatham Drama Guild's “Seussical the Musical" next week.

Audiences will appreciate Ryan Goff's set design, the mod IKEA cage with no safety clasps; ultra feminine costuming for the gals by Grace Bunt; and Ethan Jones' 60s-ish pop songs.

"A Doll's House" will bring back memories to many women of personal injustices. Even to this day societal expectations and demands play out on the real stage where men and women and gender neutral too often find difficulty in understanding and listening to one another. We can all get along if we listen rather than talk.


“A Doll's House”

At Monomoy Theatre

Through July 14, 8 p.m., Thursday at 2 p.m.

Information and reservations: 508-945-1589,