Lily Rabe and Josh Hamilton in A Doll's House
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Lily Rabe and Josh Hamilton in A Doll's House
(© T. Charles Erickson)
More coltish than kittenish, Lily Rabe might seem an odd choice to play Ibsen's master manipulator Nora Helmer in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, now playing at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. But under Sam Gold's clear-eyed direction, Rabe really turns on the charm, entwining Nora's stodgy banker husband Torvald (a wonderfully understated Josh Hamilton) in her supplicating arms and, just as often, her seemingly endless legs.

In this nuanced, unfusty translation by Paul Walsh, Ibsen's s characters tend to emerge more clearly, especially our protagonist. This Nora not only enjoys the game, but she's fully in control. As much as she needs a steady drip of cash (to pay back the ill-advised loan she took out to finance Torvald's medically recommended R&R), what she really wants is proof of her allure.

Indeed, with Nora laying on her wiles full-bore, it's no wonder her former school chum Kristine Linde (Lili Taylor, underutilized here) is willing to put up with Nora's not-so-subtle spotlight-grabbing and undermining. And it only seems natural that homely Dr. Rank (Matthew Maher) would want a front-row season ticket for the Helmers' home life. In this rendering, Nora's flirtatiousness -- she routinely cuddles up to Rank, just as she does her husband -- seems especially cruel.

While bringing Nora's character flaws into sharp relief (quite often hilariously), Rabe nonetheless somehow manages to grab and hold our sympathy -- at least for the first two acts. (The play runs over three hours in this go-round). The action, however, starts to drag once the disgraced lawyer Nils Krogstad (Adam Rothenberg, young for the role, but nonetheless effective) has dropped his extortionist letter in the Helmers' mailbox (to which only Mr. Helmer holds the key).

The production, for all its pluses, has one other major flaw: David Korins' intentionally shabby 1960ish set, juxtaposed with Kaye Voyce's indeterminate costuming, sets audiences up for an unresolvable game of Guess That Decade.

As for the famous, play-ending door slam, you'll wait in vain to hear it. After what seems an extremely drawn-out late-night tête à tête (a scene all too familiar from many a foundering marriage), there will be slamming to be sure, but of a different sort, from a different source. This one substantial departure from the original manages -- quite brilliantly -- to call into question Nora's proto-feminist bona fides, adding another new layer to this century-old work.