Ingmar Bergman would often condense or re-think some plays by Ibsen and Strindberg if he thought of them as his special territory, shifting scenes, cutting others, and sometimes even adding some scenes of his own. The results were so intensely his and so impressive that few critics questioned what he would do with certain texts. It was felt, and rightly so, that Bergman had earned the privilege of taking some liberties with the classics.
Austin Pendleton’s production of Nora, a Bergman condensation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, raises some interesting and troubling questions about what Bergman did to some of the plays he worked with. Detached from Bergman’s own directorial control and talent and obsessive nature, do these texts have any value on their own? On the basis of this Nora, the answer is most likely no.
Pendleton stages the play in a manner that might seem Bergman-esque. Many scenes take place with Nora (Jean Lichty) and one of the other characters sitting on a couch, barely moving, as they speak to each other. Anyone who was lucky enough to see Bergman’s outright amazing production of Ibsen’s Ghosts at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2002 will recognize this couch stasis pose he favored, which was reminiscent of the majority of the scenes in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film Gertrud (1964).
To be fair, the performers here work hard, and the architecture of Ibsen’s play does it own work, as it nearly always does. Every time you see a play as great as A Doll’s House, in whatever version, you are made to consider different things in it. In this Pendleton production, the scene that really stands out is the one where Nora is going to ask for money from Dr. Rank (George Morfogen) until he confesses his love to her, at which point she angrily rejects his help. As conceived and played here, this scene illuminates a true mystery of human behavior. Why does Nora react as violently as she does, particularly when Dr. Rank would like nothing better than to help her with his money? Other productions have provided reasons in the subtext of the acting, but this one makes it seem like some strange point of ego in Nora.
Alas, this production falls apart in its final stretch, mainly because Nora is such a difficult role. No matter how much charm and charisma an actress applies to her, there is always going to be an area of this woman that is annoying, and this cannot be finessed easily. What needs to happen in the final scenes is a revelation and a change in her, and this Lichty does not provide. There should be a new sort of calm and resolve in Nora in the famous last scene, with pain underneath, but Lichty is still playing the fluttery uncertainty she displays in earlier scenes. This is perhaps a choice on her part, but the production would be more well balanced if she made at least a small change in manner.
A Doll’s House is still a play that can speak to audiences. It has not dated. But it might be that it needs the full force of what Ibsen himself wrote rather than the stripped-down essence that only Bergman himself could make fully alive in the theater.