A gauzy curtain sweeps across the front of the stage at the Huntington Theatre Company to open a revival of A Doll's House, as if to wipe away shadows of past productions. Newly adapted by Bryony Lavery and directed by Melia Bensussen, this version portrays the central couple, Nora and Torvald Helmer, as young and sexy, but still bound by the moralities of the society in which they live. However, other than the colorblind casting and pushing the sensual attractions, the play seems little changed from Henrik Ibsen's familiar classic.
Bensussen has injected an omnipresent sense of dread right from the top as Nora (Andrea Syglowski) returns from shopping for Christmas presents. Nora will not keep still, fluttering from door to table to couch, and picking macaroons with nervous gestures from the bag in her pocket. With her bursts of shrill laughter, it seems as if she cannot find a comfortable place to rest in her own home.
When Torvald (Sekou Laidlow) enters, dressed in his proper, buttoned-up suit and condescending manner, the game is on. Nora assumes the persona of the "little lark" or" squirrel," taking her cue from her husband's nicknames for her, in response to his continual but loving put-downs. He cannot keep his hands off of her, as if she's his live-in pet.
If the marriage bed is one major theme of the couple's relationship, the importance of money is the other, but not for obvious reasons. He doles out bills to his wife, thinking her frivolous and childlike in her constant need for more money, without guessing at Nora's secret. Behind his back, Nora contracted a loan from one of the bank's employees, Krogstad (Nael Nacer), to fund a year in Italy after Torvald fell ill and needed to recuperate. In order to secure the loan, Nora forged her father's name. Torvald has just been appointed manager of the bank, complete with a larger salary. When he fires Krogstad for past transgressions, the money-lender comes to Nora to demand her help in reversing the decision or he will disclose the crime to her husband.
Ibsen wrote a perfectly constructed play with every sentence crucial to the climax, and gave nearly all the characters complex motives for their actions. Nora unburdens herself to her old friend, Mrs. Linde (Marinda Anderson) who insists that Nora must tell Torvald the truth, but Nora refuses. She frantically looks for help from her husband's best friend, Dr. Rank (Jeremy Webb), but when he declares his love for her, Nora realizes she cannot exploit his feelings.
Syglowski's moody but glowing performance drives the emotional impact of Bensussen's production. Nora's transformation from a man's plaything to the steely woman who comes to understand her true dilemma is mesmerizing to watch and cannot help but impact women watching. Despite the 19th-century setting, the gender inequality raised in the show is, unfortunately, still relevant today. Syglowski uses Nora's play-acting to develop a physicality that changes in rhythm and gestures as her world crumbles. Her tarantella scene is a marvel of expressive body language, translated into the dance.
In contrast, Laidlow as Torvald plays to the clichés of the character, blind to the needs of his wife. Anderson as Mrs. Linde could add balance as a more forceful moral compass. But both Nacer as Krogstad, the inconsistent villain, and Webb as the besotted but pragmatic Dr. Rank, are excellent.
Designer James Noone's set, a high-ceilinged, sparsely furnished house with blank walls and windows that open onto a landscape of malevolent, swirling skies, are reminiscent of the paintings of Edvard Munch. The play space is perfectly set for existential crisis. The final moments of the play, where Nora asserts her individuality, brings worries about whether she could survive on her own in a patriarchal society. While she walked out of a situation that does not suit the new woman she has become, the world waiting for her — one that insists on a woman's place beside her husband — might not hold a welcome.