Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 “A Doll’s House” rightfully has become such a classic play with the famous touchstone of its slammed-door ending that it’s easily forgotten how the characters got there. In the new Capital Stage production, skillfully adapted and updated to 1948 by Stephanie Gularte, the stunning journey of Ibsen’s middle-class mother and housewife, Nora Helmer, unfurls through Brittni Barger’s layered, illuminating performance as Nora, who evolves from self-aware, kittenish pandering to a cool internal understanding and finally on to a resonant external resolve.
Under Janis Stevens’ clear, taut direction, we sense the steps of Nora’s transformation all along the way.
This is easily the most satisfying of Gularte’s classic adaptations for Capital Stage, perhaps because all the production elements are so sharply focused and complementary – from the ensemble’s authentic performances to Gail Russell’s beautifully realized period costumes. The post-war setting of America in social transition into a new modernity comfortably envelops Ibsen’s marital drama.
Barger’s Nora initially seems to enjoy the role of pampered plaything who flirts coquettishly with her oblivious husband, Thomas, (a finely controlled Ryan Snyder) in the mannered domestic melodrama they have assumed. They live modestly (with three children and a nanny) though their fortunes are on the rise with Thomas’ recent appointment as local bank president.
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Ibsen quickly flips the scene to a thornier underside when Nora’s school friend Christine Linde arrives. Through Elena Wright’s indispensably vital performance, Christine embodies the harder reality of many women’s lives. Now a childless widow, Christine married for financial security but has none since her husband dissipated their money before he died.
Looking for a job and a friend, Christine quickly becomes Nora’s confidant. She learns Nora aided Thomas’ difficult recovery from wartime trauma by secretly and illegally securing a loan that allowed them time to ease back into civilian life before he was able to find a job. Thomas believes Nora’s father gave them the money. As we understand what Nora has done, why she did it and her resolve to keep it secret, the frivolous trophy wife image drops away, and we can never see Nora the same way.
Giving Nora even more dimension are her relationships with two men well known to her husband. Chad Deverman’s Nicholas Krogstad served with Thomas and now works at the bank. He is the loan shark Nora obtained the illicit money from. Scott Coopwood’s Dr. William Rank is a close friend of Thomas and a not-so-secret admirer of Nora. Her strategic management of both these relationships makes her more a calculated adult in our eyes.
Deverman brings an accessible, unaffected honesty to the conflicted Krogstad and Coopwood a moving melancholy to Rank. As these characters engage each other, we’re struck by the paradoxes of good people doing destructive things and fallen people trying to do upstanding things. We also see how motivations and actions can be so blindly subjective.
Stevens and the cast give the production a sensual, passionate frame, which contrasts ironically with Nora’s steely final resolve.
A Doll’s House
What: The Capital Stage production of Henrik Ibsen’s play, adapted by Stephanie Gularte, directed by Janis Stevens.
Where: Capital Stage, 2215 J St., Sacramento
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays - Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Nov. 22.
Information: 916-995-5464; www.capstage.org
Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, including two intermissions.