Dramatic adaptations walk a tightrope from their inception to the curtain’s close. They carry the expectations of their source texts, while simultaneously taking on the burden of subverting audience expectations.
‘Nora: A Doll’s House’ by Stef Smith is a reimagining of the script originally penned by Henrik Ibsen; Smith’s version walks the line between old and new, transcending time and space through the lens of a woman in crisis, Nora Helmer. From Sept. 30 through Oct. 10 the School of Music, Theatre and Dance presented Stef Smith’s fresh reimagining of this script in the Arthur Miller theater.
This production put notable emphasis on the insular and stifling nature of the domestic sphere. In his director’s note, Malcolm Tulip, Head of the School of Theatre’s directing program, notes that “the close atmosphere of the Helmer household is perhaps familiar to us from pandemic lockdowns.” Indeed, Ibsen’s classic tale of familial strife takes on new significance when compared to the maddening crucible of COVID-19-induced isolation. Smith’s reworking of the text portrays a woman in a constant state of flux, whether it be temporal, spatial or emotional. Nora Helmer lives with her husband Thomas and their children in three contrasting time periods. There are three separate Noras, living in 1918, 1968 and 2018, respectively.
Nora and her husband embody a seemingly blissful domestic existence with their three children. Thomas has recently overcome a bout of a deadly illness, and has since received a promotion at work; the family appears to be in a stable financial condition. However, during a visit with an old friend Christine, Nora reveals that she took out an enormous sum of money in order to pay for her sick husband’s treatment. She does so without his knowledge, as she is legally and socially barred from controlling their finances. At the beginning of the holiday season, Nathan (or “Krogstad” as he is named in Isben’s original version) pays Nora a visit, imploring that her husband allows him to keep his job at the bank. When she refuses, Nathan reveals that he knows of her deceit and threatens to tell Thomas if she doesn’t secure his position. The ensuing power struggle between Nora, Thomas and Nathan tests the bonds of marital obligation, leaving Nora caught between a loveless marriage and a life of financial instability.
Smith subverts the narrative structure with her use of historical detail; each life of Nora’s is punctuated by a key historical moment in the centuries-long struggle for women’s liberation. 1918 Nora is able to vote for the first time in her life, 1968 Nora illegally applies for a credit card (women in the U.S. weren’t allowed to hold credit cards in their own name until 1974), 2018 Nora reconciles the aftermath of the #MeToo movement with her own experience of entrapment at the hands of her husband.
The cast is a force to be reckoned with, featuring the talents of SMTD Junior Alyssa Melani (Nora 1918 / Christine 1968), SMTD Junior Ruby Sevcik (Nora 1968 / Christine 2018) and SMTD Senior Ruby Pérez (Nora 2018 / Christine 1918). The triad astounds in their ability to seamlessly shift between time and space, while simultaneously crafting characters who are dramatically distinct in their own right. Each actress faced the unique challenge of portraying the jaded Christine as well as the naive Nora, often switching between characters from line to line.
SMTD junior Erik Dagoberg takes on the obstinate Thomas. Thomas and his respective Noras walk the fine line between love and possession with a grace that’s difficult to master, and even more difficult to maintain. SMTD senior Chris Jensen portrayed Nathan in a manner multifaceted enough to evoke pity in even the most stone-faced audience member. Jalen Steudle, an SMTD sophomore, takes on the brief but challenging role of Daniel, whose appearances are almost exclusively marked by exceptionally high dramatic stakes. His first scene is closely followed by a scene detailing the fatality of his battle with cancer; he is forced to reckon with matters of life and death within the span of a few minutes.
The mise-en-scene hints at the gravity of these stakes, the sense of suffocation is heightened by the rigid LED frames that encapsulate the stage. A stunning portrait of a winter landscape serves as the backdrop of the entire set, functioning as a constant reminder of the simultaneous freedom and danger that the outside world has to offer. The set itself is reminiscent of a choice, the choice that becomes the thematic crux of the entire play: Will Nora stay or go?
The question itself becomes infinitely more complicated as the play progresses and the lives of the Noras and Christines become increasingly inextricable. The domestic ripples within the Helmer family sway the greater tide of history, a past where women are forced to stay, and a future where they might have the courage to leave.
The artistic actualization of this phenomenon is ambitious to the point of inefficacy at times, as the play’s grander elements wash out the narrative’s minutiae. The directorial conceptualization of the work was rooted in universality, specifically in reference to the lived experiences of women. But the play blurs the lines between both the three Noras, and the three Christines, which at times strips the characters of their individuality.
This Brechtian approach to characterization is effective in precipitating an intellectual response from audience members, but it oftentimes does little to provoke any sort of emotional engagement. True dramatic resonance does not originate from a point of palatable universality, but from one of biting specificity. Hence, applying broad strokes to the experience of womanhood does little for the modern female theatergoer. Nevertheless, the production succeeds in delivering a riveting power struggle from start to finish. It’s aesthetically cohesive, and the actors make strong and well-executed choices. Tulip takes Smith’s vibrant reimagining of one of theatre’s most revolutionary plays and makes a provocative statement on how gender roles have changed over the course of history, and how they have not. Nora remains Schrodinger’s woman, perpetually both captive and free.
Daily Arts Writer Darby Williams can be reached at email@example.com.