I never saw Ibsen before," an older viewer proclaimed loudly to no one in particular when the lights came up after the St. Louis Actors' Studio production of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. He's surely not alone. Apart from back-to-back Hedda Gablers three years ago, local productions of works by perhaps the most influential playwright of the nineteenth century have been scarce. Anyone who wants to know what the fuss was all about in the 1870s and '80s when these controversial Norwegian dramas brazenly attacked both Victorian morality and reckless individualism (thus making Ibsen the ultimate loner) would do well to take a cup of Christmas cheer with Torvald and Nora Helmer.
Act One begins on Christmas Eve. "I'm not going to be selfish today," Nora announces, as if she usually is. To her husband of twelve years, Little Miss Perfect is a prized possession. Her childhood friend Christine (Missy Miller) dismisses Nora as still a child. Dr. Rank (Chad Morris), a family confidant, is more charitable. A secret admirer, he views Nora as "the spirit of joy." But Dr. Rank is dying of syphilis, which might be impairing his vision.
What no one sees is that the much-pampered Nora holds a secret. In order to borrow money for a much-needed vacation, Nora forged her father's signature, an offense punishable by imprisonment. Now she is about to be blackmailed, and she cannot share the crisis with her husband, because Torvald has just been made manager of a local bank. A Doll's House has more melodramatic plot twists than an episode of Desperate Housewives.
But Ibsen uses plot to inform character. As these three days of revelations unfold, Nora's evolution from sheltered object to independent woman is made clear. Her transmutation into a woman able to bear the ultimate sacrifice — the loss of home, security, children — is believable. When, near the play's end, Torvald, having learned of his wife's indiscretions, asks, "Do you understand what you've done to me?" and Nora coldly replies, "I do," it's as if their sham of a marriage has come full circle, for this is a profoundly different "I do" from the phrase she uttered on their wedding day when she promised to love, honor and obey.
Much could be said about Julie Layton's valiant Nora — how she begins as animatedly as a bobblehead doll and how, as maturity takes hold, it is accompanied by an almost deathly stillness, as if she can sense the gravity of what she is about to do. But the truest measure of Layton's portrayal is to be found not in what happens onstage but rather in what occurs in the audience. During intermission women who barely knew each other found camaraderie in talking about how affected they were by Nora. A 131-year-old play was making contact, and that contact was being channeled through Layton.
R. Travis Estes is effectively forceful as Torvald. But it would be interesting to see an actor cut past Torvald's obvious boorishness and try to unearth the qualities that made Nora fall in love with him. Maybe they aren't there. But Greg Johnston is able to bring an understated quietude to the distressed money lender Krogstad that succeeds in making his scenes all the more chilling.
Finally, kudos to resident designer Patrick Huber, who has had ample opportunity to learn how to show off the narrow Actors' Studio stage to best advantage. For this production, directed by Milt Zoth, the stage is framed by overhead curtains that appear to be red velvet. In addition to reminding us that we are in a theater, the curtains help to visualize the Helmer household as the doll's house of the title. Thanks to the inventive set design, even before this ambitious and thoughtful production begins, we are ready for it.