Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” remains one of the world’s greatest dramas, steamy and relevant

Power dynamics between husband Torvald (Nate Burger) and Nora Helmer (Kelsey Brennan) shift precipitously through APT’s “A Doll’s House,” running through Oct. 4. Photos by Liz Lauren courtesy APT

SPRING GREEN — Henrik Ibsen’s spectacles probably steamed up while he wrote “A Doll’s House,” but his brain surely boiled as well. One of classic theater’s sexiest plays also provided American Players Theatre’s audience witness to one of the world’s greatest dramas — published in 1879 but now in 78 languages, inspiring countless performances and adaptations.

It’s a woman’s personal odyssey, proto-feminist, and somewhat comparable to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. But Hawthorne’s a Puritan prude compared to this Scandinavian and lacked Ibsen’s genius for dramatic, even explosive, story craft. Yet there’s nary a gun nor blade visible. Psychological suspense intensifies, as if the well-stoked stove upstage is steadily swallowing the set in flames.

It opens with grabby, bourgeois husband Torvald treating his young wife like a doll, or “my little hamster.” Initially, nothing but “gold-digger” shines in Nora Helmer’s slightly manic eyes. Swift plots turns bring a man to her doorstep with a secret, held over her like the sword of Damocles, and an old girlfriend who may help her survive.

A visitor (Juan Rivera Lebron) arrives with information that could shatter the delicate structure of Nora Helmer’s  “Doll’s House.”

Old “family friend” Dr. Rank (Marcus Truschinski,* with dancing eyebrows and humid spectacles) lurks, secretly craving vivacious Nora.

A box of chocolates are only part of Nora’s wiles with well-off and frequent family guest Dr. Rank (Marcus Truschinski)

Along the way, Ibsen deposits plenty of pregnant symbols: a Christmas doll’s house — “It’ll just break anyway,” Nora says with unwitting portent, — a white dress, then a red one (perhaps in homage to The Scarlet Letter), a box of “forbidden” chocolates, a game of hide-and-seek, important letters stuck in a mailbox, a post card with a black cross…

Nora endures dark nights of the soul, and actor Kelsey Brennan dominates the stage with her radiance and increasingly tortured being. Her closing-scene transformation is breathtaking, but feels inevitable, as does the shattering demise of Nate Burger’s Torvald. Nora must finally dance a gypsy tarantelle for her fantasizing husband. But she pirouettes along a cliff and, somewhere between salvation and damnation, lies her humanity, a quivering lifeline in the “#Me Too” era.

Through October 4, in APT’s Touchstone Theater, For tickets, visit americanplayers.org.


* Marcus Truschinski is also playing the title character in Macbeth, perhaps the plum role of APT’s season this year.

A slightly shorter version of this review was published in Shepherd Expresshttps://shepherdexpress.com/arts-and-entertainment/theater/a-dolls-house-still-one-of-the-worlds-greatest-dramas/



A message to a great actor: Jim DeVita in the one-man play “American Song”

Jim DeVita, as a devastated father of a dead son from a terrorist gun massacre, in the world premiere of Joanna Murray-Smith’s one-man play “American Song,” at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Photo courtesy jsonline.com

I decided to post the e-mail message below, which I sent to actor Jim DeVita today, even though the brilliant one-man play American Song, which he delivered the world premiere of at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, has closed.

I managed to get to the end of the play’s run, but I still wanted to offer my appreciation to him, and for those who may have an opportunity to see the play, and to see DeVita perhaps performing American Song elsewhere, or in other roles with Milwaukee theater companies, or in his long-time position as a lead company actor for American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin.
Anywhere you see him, you will probably understand why The New Yorker critic Terry Teachout called him “America’s greatest classical actor.”

But in this case, DeVita played the heart and stone-burdened Andy, in an overwhelmingly up-to-the-minute play by Joanna Marie-Smith, and directed by The Rep’s artistic director Mark Clements. 1

The play’s title references Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, wherein the poet likens America to a song and its citizens as potentially a chorus, just as he celebrates American individualism, throughout the “Grass” collection, most famously in the poem “Song of Myself.”

The new play American Song, challenges Whitman’s optimism for an American populace singing in harmony. In fact, playwright Murray-Smith isolates one individual with almost cold-blooded scrutiny.

A father named Andy is hand-building a stone wall on his property while he struggles to come to grips with the harsh, devastating reality of his son’s recent death. The spectral back story is a terrorist gun massacre in the son’s school, which left nine people dead including his son and many injured, an all-too-familiar dirge of a song today. One wonders how Whitman would’ve responded to this numbing American refrain.

I will say no more about the story, only to add that the play’s scrutiny allows us to experience and feel the depth and array of feelings of this human being, an every man with warm blood and a lacerated heart.
In my message, I do try to express some appreciation of the power of the play and especially of DeVita’s astonishing performance.

Hey Jim,

I want you to know that my girlfriend Ann and I finally caught the last Sunday matinee performance of American Song. We were in the balcony in the middle. Both of us were greatly impressed by the play, and engrossed and moved by your performance.

Ann said that she felt on the verge of tears frequently. This is a tribute to you, and your uncanny ability — often in mid-set sentence — to shift into an emotionally charged tone. The audience senses, in the bat of an eyelash, the increased pressure and weight of that nuanced, yet charged, moment. The cumulative effect is draining yet quietly exhilarating.
Yet, the 90 minutes flew by with only you, and the text and stage direction, to sustain their flow and power.
I can think of very few actors who have such skills as yours, in this regard. You also commanded the narrative flow beautifully.
And I love the metaphor of you building the stone wall, it’s rhythm and symbolism, which is rich and open to interpretation.
For me, perhaps you are building a wall around your heart, to protect it. Of course, we never see you complete it because that is perhaps a lifelong project, at least internally, which adds to the play’s poignance and the footprints of personal history, your stone-hauling and pacing back and forth  — and talking to the sky in confounded wonder and anger.
The latter act evokes, for me, King Lear, before he loses it, and Melville’s “quarrel with God.” You recall, Melville also lost his oldest son, age 18, to a gun death, most likely suicide.
Thank you for an indelible experience,
Kevin Lynch
p.s,. Stay in touch regarding your performance and writing exploits, especially regarding Melville. Hi to Brenda.
1. Milwaukee Rep director Mark Clements approached playwright Joanna Murray-Scott about writing this play for the rep in 2012, “not too long before America and the world was shocked to its core by the fatal shootings of 20 children between the ages of six and seven, along with six other adult staff members, at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut., The director writes in his program notes to American song.”
Murray-Scott is an Australian playwright and novelist. Among her plays are Honour and Rapture, which both won the Victorian Premier’s literary award for best play.