This has been a season of entertaining and crowd-pleasing shows at Princeton Summer Theater. “Into the Woods” had everyone singing while “Barefoot in the Park” and “Beyond Therapy” went for big laughs.
But as we head into the final weeks of summer, PST is ending its season on a serious note with a solid production of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.”
If this seems like the theatrical equivalent of eating your vegetables after dessert, fear not. “A Doll’s House” may be an old and “important” play, but the staging running at Hamilton Murray Theater through Sunday, August 14, doesn’t feel like homework. Kelvin Dinkins Jr. has directed a compelling, if imperfect, take on Ibsen’s classic, which features one of the most legendary female characters of all time.
That would be Nora Helmer, who has been played on stage and screen by the likes of Ruth Gordon, Claire Bloom, Liv Ullmann, Jane Fonda, and Janet McTeer. That makes Jenny Grace’s fine take on Nora no small feat.
“A Doll’s House” is as famous for its commentary on the treatment of women in the late 19th century as it is for its story. Nora is smart and determined but is constrained by society and marriage. She is savvy enough to save her husband’s life without him knowing it, but lives in fear of her secrets being exposed. She can maneuver her way around banking and the law but is powerless to retrieve a letter that could ruin her life because she isn’t allowed a key to the mailbox.
As the play opens, Nora and Torvald (Jack Berenholtz) are getting ready to celebrate Christmas. Nora is hoping for a more elaborate holiday than in recent years because Torvald has been promoted to manager of the bank where he works. Not that things are all that bad, they have quite a nice house and a couple of maids. Still, Torvald’s lines about the peace that comes with a good, steady job resonate in a particular way these days.
Torvald treats Nora as a child, calling her his “little lark” and a “squirrel” and seeing her as hopeless and ignorant of money. What he doesn’t know is that a trip they took to a warm climate when he was seriously ill was paid for with a loan Nora arranged with Nils Krogstad (Adam Zivkovic). Nora told her husband — who despises debt — that an inheritance from her father paid for the trip.
Money doesn’t slip through Nora’s fingers, as Torvald believes. To pay off the loan, she’s skimmed from the family budget and worked late at night transcribing papers. “It made me feel like a man,” she says of work.
Nora tells all of this to Kristine Linde (Claire Helene), a widowed friend who has come to her looking for a job at Torvald’s bank. As these developments build and intertwine, Nora’s home life with her husband and children is threatened.
On opening night, Grace seemed to struggle in the play’s first few minutes. She was hard to hear and didn’t seem settled into the role. But she soon found her footing and was able to share Nora’s many sides with confidence. She’s sweet, innocent, and seemingly ignorant in front of her husband, but coy and confident when she tells Mrs. Linde her story. Later, she is flirty with Dr. Rank (Christopher J. Beard) who has a few secrets of his own.
Helene, who did some terrific work in PST’s recent production of “Beyond Therapy” is good here as well. Her Mrs. Linde is smart and determined and willing to do whatever it takes to provide for her children. Mrs. Linde is just as desperate as Nora but seems more confident and in control, probably because she doesn’t have a husband to answer to.
Dinkins — who ran the season with the title executive producing director — brings a love of the play and a confidence in how to tell it. This may not be an ingeniously staged production, but the layered story is relayed clearly and dramatically. The show runs for two hours and 40 minutes and in all honesty, I was fearful this was going to make for a long night, but Dinkins and his actors set a pace that moves things along quickly without rushing (though the last scene does drag a bit). The result was that I became immersed in the drama and the characters, and what more could you ask of an evening of theater?
That’s not to say the production doesn’t have challenges of its own. Nora dominates Ibsen’s play to the point that it’s difficult for the other actors to make much of an impact. This is a young cast handling mature, challenging material, and the men often come off as if they’re playing dress-up. Berenholtz is the best of the men as the condescending Torvald.
Jeff Van Velsor’s sets are the finest of PST’s season, consisting of a tasteful blue wall with wooden doors. Ornate and new-looking furniture decorates the Helmer home. To the right is a coal stove, which actually glows when Berenholtz opens it, and a piano.
But this night belongs to Grace. Her Nora starts off energetic and full of life but notice how she expresses that energy as she practices dancing. Torvald plays piano as Nora says to him, “Direct me, teach me, the way you always have” with passion and anger. She is soon out of control in her dancing, just as the events in her life are spiraling out of control. Grace is also particularly good in a key scene with Zivkovic as Krogstad acts on his threats to Nora. Thanks to Grace and Dinkins, Princeton Summer Theater is ending its season in style.
“A Doll’s House,” through Sunday, August 14, Princeton Summer Theater, Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University Campus. $20 to $25. 877-238-5596 or www.pst2011.org.