A Doll House

McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ, through May 26, (609) 683-8000.

At the end of Henrik Ibsen's still-shocking 1879 play A Doll House, Nora, the doll-wife, sits down at the living room table with her husband Torvald to have a serious conversation for the first time in their eight-year marriage, and informs him that she is leaving him and their children. Looking back at her attitudes, behavior and values up until the very moment of her sudden feminist enlightenment, she tries to understand -- and to explain -- what could possibly have been going through her head all those years. She concludes, ruefully, that she couldn't even tell when she was pretending; "I wasn't happy," she observes, "only playful."

This appears to be the keynote of Cynthia Nixon's manic Nora in Emily Mann's rather straightforward production of A Doll House at McCarter Theatre (in a trenchantly clear translation by Gerry Bamman and Irene B. Berman -- the same translation that Mann used in her production of the play at Hartford Stage ten years ago). Even when Nora crows triumphantly early on in the play that she finally FEELS HAPPY, we sense that she is play-acting. It's not that she doesn't feel happy when she says this; it's that she is throwing herself so fervently into her role without questioning the institution, i.e. marriage, that has determined that role.

When Nora lies to Torvald (David Lansbury) about not having eaten macaroons, or when she comes on to him sexually when she's about to ask him a favor, we can see that she knows that she's lying and that she's being manipulative; but she throws herself so whole-heartedly into her masquerade that she honestly believes that he and the others can't see the pretense. The only game that Nora consciously plays that Torvald and the others evidently can't see through is her feigned dependence -- when she sits beside her husband on the couch or on a footstool at her husband's knee and asks him to teach her what she needs to know about household accounts, about raising the children, or about dancing the tarantella.

It's no wonder, then, that all the other characters in the play -- her husband Torvald, her school-friend Kristine (Deborah Hedwall), her older admirer Dr. Rank (Nicholas Hormann), and even her blackmailer Krogstad (Mark Zeisler) -- treat her, affectionately, as though she were a child, someone so guileless in her guile that she can't even see how obvious her guile is.

This also may explain why Nixon's performance becomes so strange when Krogstad invades the sanctuary of her marriage and the anticipated catastrophe threatens to tear her family apart. When every role that Nora knows how to play leads her deeper into intrigue, when all events point toward exposure, confrontation and death, her play-acting becomes even more manic, and her face freezes into a mask-like grimace.

It's appropriate, then, that the long discussion at the end of the play is less Nora's statement of her new-found certainties than it is a new set of unanswered questions, a new role that Nora knows she doesn't understand but knows that she must play, a role that she must, finally, define for herself.

Emily Mann emphasizes Nora's searching, uncertain state of mind at the end of the play by shifting the location (through a nifty transformation in Thomas Lynch's set) of the final husband/wife conversation. In Mann's staging, Nora and Torvald never do sit at that table and have that conversation, but snatch at explanations while Nora packs her bags and changes her clothes, in search of a new role, a new life, and (when she walks out the door of the apartment, famously closing the door behind her) a new place to live it.

There are many touching and insightful moments in Mann's staging, notably the frank discussion at the beginning of the third act in which Kristine and Krogstad renegotiate their relationship; and a beautiful shared moment when Nora, learning that Dr. Rank is going to die and certain that she will too, tries on Dr. Rank's top hat.

But neither the production's insights, Nixon's hyper performance, nor the bold scene change at the end of the play can make the play's conclusion altogether satisfying at McCarter Theatre. Maybe it's that Nora's proto-feminist discoveries seem too obvious to us in these comparatively enlightened times. Maybe it's because Lansbury's Torvald (indisputably the most difficult role in the play) never inspires sympathy, even as we watch his life and world fall apart. Or perhaps it's because the play -- like Nixon's uncertain, searching, still immature Nora -- leaves us, finally, with more questions than answers.

-- Cary M. Mazer