In some ways, you could subtitle Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, “Behind the Scenes with Ken and Barbie.”
  • In some ways, you could subtitle Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, “Behind the Scenes with Ken and Barbie.”
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I don’t mean to reduce Ibsen’s drama, but in some ways you could subtitle A Doll’s House “Behind the Scenes with Ken and Barbie.” Torvald and Nora Telmer live in such a profoundly rigid society that a single lapse can ruin a career. It would be easier for Sisyphus to bounce that boulder up to the summit than an offender to return to grace. And even for those tiptoeing the straight and narrow path, upward mobility is as difficult as melting granite.

Torvald and Nora begin the play in a doll’s house of their own making. Society dictates every move. They must be models of tight-collared rectitude and live, in effect, official lives. Dare to wear red, or dance a Tarantella, and risk public scandal. In this society, the surface — what seems to be — is the truth. So keep a shine on the veneer.

The strategy’s worked thus far, if you don’t count Torvald practically killing himself years ago to maintain appearances, or Nora forging a promissory note to raise money for his recuperation in Italy.

It’s Christmas Eve, 1879. In January, Torvald will become president of the Stockbank. He’ll finally command respect, and have an income, and he, his model wife, and their three model children will bask under blue skies, and nothing but, from now on.

I always wondered what Ken would say to Barbie if they could talk. Would he, like Torvald, talk down, call her his “little” this or that in every third sentence? Like Torvald, would he never once, in their eight years of marriage, ask her opinion about a serious matter? Would he believe, as if by divine right, that she should be his mindless prop? And would he ever admit — except under extreme duress — that society regulates him just as much?

Ibsen said humanity could only advance if everyone, men and women, became “an authentic person, all of whose acts must stem from the deeper self.” In one sense, A Doll’s House shows the early stages of that process.

Nora overspends, lies (she tells her friend Kristine that she’s been happy for the past eight years), and sneaks macaroons with the surreptitious persistence of an alcoholic. So maybe Torvald’s right: Nora’s just a “little” child. Or maybe these lapses are fissures in an imitation marriage, acts of passive-aggressive defiance.

A Doll’s House became legendary for Nora’s sudden transformation and heroic/theatrical exit. August Strindberg hated the play. In a characteristic burst of misogyny he said Nora’s a liar and a chronic flirt. He defended Torvald as an “honest man” betrayed by his “hussy” of a wife.

Recent stagings of Doll’s House have spun Strindberg on his ear: Torvald’s Everyman/sexist pig and wall-to-wall villain. In the Old Globe Theatre’s competent, though not overwhelming production, Fred Arsenault plays both Torvalds. He doesn’t love Nora in depth, but he’s certain he loves her correctly, just as her father did. Arsenault’s patient assertions scold but with a sense of tenderness. As his voice rises, however, his control wanes. In the end, he doesn’t just lose his wife, he loses an entire world view — and Arsenault’s eyes reflect a heretofore unthinkable disillusionment.

Gretchen Hall’s Nora needed to settle in on opening night. Her best moments came after Nora’s breakthrough — toe to toe with Torvald, defying his desperation to keep her. In the earlier scenes, Hall’s spontaneity went in and out. She signaled choices — working at them, rather than being them — and Nora often came off as childish, just immature, not childlike, an innocent who learns to articulate the unspeakable.

As with A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder across the way at the Globe, Doll’s House is a homecoming for former San Diegans. Kirsten Brandt, of Sledgehammer Theatre, honors Anne-Charlotte Hanes Harvey’s new adaptation and makes telling use of dolls onstage.

Richard Baird, founder of the Poor Players and a major talent, makes his inaugural Old Globe appearance as Krogstad (so where’s he been?). Krogstad’s a walking cautionary tale: one lapse cast him out, made him “morally rotten” and the model for society’s fears. Then, in one of the most sweeping transitions in all of theater, he becomes Ibsen’s model for loving deeply.

Baird gives a kaleidoscopic performance: villain (even arch, in one creepy instance); long-suffering, repressed (from without and within); and suddenly able to do the most difficult act of all: to trust once again. It’s impressive work, as is Nisi Strugis’s moving Mrs. Kristine Linde, who effects a similar transformation.

Jack Koenig makes Dr. Rank more of a comic figure than need be (he’s actually the one who listens to Nora in ways Torvald doesn’t). Amanda Naughton and Katie Whalley serve gracefully in support roles.

Also in the It’s About Time category: San Diegan Sean Fanning designed his first set for the Old Globe, and it’s appropriate for the White Theatre’s in-the-round configuration. What looks like a moat surrounds the Helmer’s threatened abode, though Paul Peterson’s often melodramatic stormy seas underscore it a tad too heavily. ■

A Doll’s House, by Henrik Ibsen

Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park

Directed by Kirsten Brandt, cast: Katie Whalley, Gretchen Hall, Fred Arsenault, Nisi Sturgis, Richard Baird, Jack Koenig, Amanda Naughton; scenic design, Sean Fanning; costumes, Alina Bokovikova; lighting, David Lee Cuthbert; sound, Paul Peterson

Playing through April 21; Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623

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