Northern Stage puts on "A Doll's House" starring alumni

Robert Kropf wrote this iteration of the Ibsen classic, showing until the end of October.

by Savannah Miller | 10/10/17 12:15pm

On Wednesday, Sept. 20, Northern Stage premiered its production of “A Doll’s House.” Written by Henrik Ibsen in 1879, the play follows the unraveling of a seemingly perfect marriage and is considered by many a staple piece of feminist literature despite its author’s stated ambivalance to the cause. Robert Kropf wrote this version of the play, with Eric Bunge directing.

The play tells the story of Nora Helmer, a Norwegian housewife living a perfect life of luxury with her husband Torvald. However, her wonderful life begins to unravel when personal, secret debts begin to catch up with her. Unbeknownst to Nora, her husband plans on firing Nils Krogstad, his employee and the secret lender of Nora’s money. What follows is a story of desperation, familial turmoil and discovering one’s self-worth.

The story is supplemented by a charismatic cast of characters that includes Dr. Rank, an elderly family friend who cares deeply about Nora’s well-being, and Kristine Linde, a no-nonsense woman roped into Nora’s debacle out of financial need and a prior romantic entanglement.

“A Doll’s House” is being shown in reperatory with “Robert Frost: This Verse Business,” a one-man show starring “NYPD Blue’s” Gordon Clapp.

“We really do want to program a variety of plays,” director of sales and marketing at Northern Stage Irene Green said. “We want there to be something for everybody.”

Green referred to the theme of the current season at Northern Stage, “Opening Doors,” and cited the play’s continued relevance in society as the main reason the stage decided to produce the show. While the play features an infamous door slamming closed, it is a slam that Green hopes will open a dialogue about the way women were treated in society, and how issues in the 19th century surrounding gender exist today.

“The election last year — regardless of which side you fall on politically — brought to the forefront the way women are treated in society,” Green said. “It’s a play that definitely has relevance in 2017.”

“A Doll’s House” was a collaborative project for Northern Stage, and the piece was very personal to several involved. Bunge, the director of this piece and the managing director for Northern Stage, has a strong connection to Ibsen — before coming to Northern Stage in 2013, Bunge began the first ever American Ibsen festival in Minnesota.

“I think [Ibsen is] an important playwright,” Bunge said. “We should produce his plays every once in a while to remind ourselves that, however far we think we’ve come, we haven’t come that far after all.”

Despite his familiarity with the playwright, this was Bunge’s first time directing “A Doll’s House,” and it was not without its challenges.

“For me, the challenge in directing a piece like this is that people come in with these expectations and have a preconceived notion of the play,” Bunge said. “The trick when producing the play is making sure the characters don’t become stereotypes.”

The production features three Dartmouth graduates: Hannah Chodos ’06, Matthew Cohn ’08 and Olivia Gilliatt ’08. Gilliatt plays the principal role of Nora, a role she recognizes comes with challenges and expectations.

“I think there’s always a certain pressure when playing an iconic role, feminist or not,” Gilliatt said. “But the reality is I’m playing a person.”

Gilliatt was familiar with the text long before being cast as the protagonist, having read it during her time at Dartmouth. Some courses, such as Theater 17: “Theater and Society III: 19th and 20th Century Performance,” may require students to read the play. While Gilliatt admits that she did not relate to Nora when she initially read the play, she now feels as though Nora was a very groundbreaking character, especially for the time in which Ibsen was writing.

“There are whole swaths of Nora’s experience as a woman navigating a very circumscribed world that I can relate to much better as a 31-year-old than I did as a 21-year-old,” she said.

The production is just over three weeks into its six-week run, and it has already sparked conversation among audience members about sexism in contemporary society. In that way, Green believes the piece has already become a success.

“It’s not just a feminist play,” Green said. “It’s a humanist play.”

Gilliatt echoed those sentiments, saying she felt the play has been so consistently popular because of its relatable and permeating message.

“To me, this is a play about those who have power, and those who don’t,” she said. “If you’ve ever felt powerless … then I think this play is deeply resonant.

“A Doll’s House” closes on Oct. 29.