By ELLEN FERRY
On Friday, December 1st, I had the pleasure of seeing the Orchard Theatre Collective debut their first public production, A Doll’s House. What a better setting for Henrik Ibsen’s 19th century drama than the iconic James J. Hill House in St. Paul. The intimate space—a second story schoolroom turned into a theatre-in-the-round venue—was just large enough to contain the dynamism of Ibsen’s provocative themes and the seventy or so audience members that had gathered to appreciate them.
I’d seen the play before (in fact, I’d acted in it myself), and nevertheless, I was on the edge of my seat as I waited for Torvald (Damian Leverett) to uncover his wife (Mackenzie Shaw) Nora’s deepest, darkest secret: The fact that she, unbeknownst to her husband, had forged a signature in order to obtain a loan for the purpose of saving his life.
Without the loan, Torvald wouldn’t have had the time away from home necessary to recover from his illness. Surely, Nora reasons, Torvald would overlook her transgression—and even defend her in the event her secret became subject to public shame—if he found out the truth. Deep down, though, Norah knows it would be a nothing short of miracle for her husband to actually protect her in a time of need.
Nora’s worst fears are realized as the play spirals to its flawed conclusion. Nora is a prop in Torvald’s life—a doll in his perfect, but hollow home. She not only awakens to this truth, but as a result of her discovery, abandons her husband and children in an ending that begs the question: What really is one’s most sacred duty?
Ibsen’s drama caused quite a stir when it premiered in 1879. People were accustomed to going to the theatre to see their own values affirmed, not challenged. A woman leaving her home in the name of self-love was certainly unsettling. Nowadays, the idea of a woman embarking on a journey of self-love is widely accepted, if not actively endorsed. And yet, the audience at Friday evening’s show did not clap wildly with satisfaction after Nora Helmer found her truth. One would think that after seeing Torvald patronize her for the greater portion of ninety minutes, the audience would be relieved to see her throw off her oppressor. But I don’t think a single audience member left the James J. Hill house feeling relieved. After standing and applauding the outstanding cast, I think most settled into a somber, self-reflective state. I, for one, spent the rest of the night contemplating the cracks in my own relationships. What is good theatre, if not the kind that renders a person into a state of self-reflection?
The Orchard Theater Collective was founded by five graduates of the University of Minnesota’s Guthrie Theatre BFA Actor Training Program (four of the five appeared in A Doll’s House). The company seeks to “find new ways to tell old stories.” Ibsen’s writing brilliantly illuminates some of the most pressing issues of our time, namely systemic power imbalances and gender inequity. What a tremendous selection for the Orchard’s first public venture, and a stellar adaptation at that. I can’t wait to see what they do next.
A Doll’s House, written by Henrik Ibsen, directed and adapted by Craig Johnson. Choreography by Meredith Casey, lighting design by Dietrich Poppen, costumes by Carolann Winther. Stage managed by Ben Swenson-Klatt. Remaining shows take place on December 4th, 8th and 10th at 7:30 p.m. at the James J. Hill House, 240 Summit Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55102. Tickets are $15.00, with discounts for seniors, students and active military personnel.