Walk into the Center Theatre at Seattle Center and the sensation is that of being cramped, walled in. No part of the stage is open. Curtains on both sides surround a house front that juts out practically to the first row of seats. This opening set establishes the mood for a play about people shut in, living behind a facade where societal values repress and lead to deceit.
This is Ibsen’s most powerful examination of women’s role in Western society, and amazingly it came in 1879. Feminism resonates here, but the play is equally about self-delusion and the meaning of integrity. What a joy to see it so well done.
Nora gets by on her beauty, cute behavior, dependency, and obedience. She’s her husband Torvald’s little doll. He has no idea that she played a major role in saving his life shortly after they were married. Yet her innocence and ignorance about the implications of this intervention have potentially horrific consequences for their lives now.
Seattle Shakespeare’s production is a knock out. Michael Patten’s pompous Torvald is always right, always in charge, so self satisfied. You want to smack the prig. Yet Patten manages to make you feel sorry for him in the end. He, too, is trapped by the values of his society.
Jennifer Sue Johnson’s Nora is indeed her husband’s little “fritter bird,” his coy, so beautiful, empty-headed plaything. She’s almost too cute and naughty as she sneaks a sweet candy, knowing her husband forbids it, and plays hide and seek with her daughters. Yes, she acted on her own to save her husband, but even that she did with naiveté. The transition between the opening airhead and the steely woman-of-resolve at the end of the play hasn’t quite been realized, but one couldn’t find a more beautiful Nora or one that so epitomized a repressed wife.
Director Russ Banham and the cast worked collaboratively with local Sean Patrick Taylor who provided a new translation of Ibsen’s classic. The beauty of the translation is that it wraps this 19th Century work in 21st Century language. The costumes and set are true to Ibsen’s era, but the language is ours, and that makes the play more immediate, if not more powerful, as it explores convention, morality, and women’s role.
Through Jan. 27 at Center Theatre, Seattle Center, 305 Harrison St., $22-$45, (206-733-8222 or www.seattleshakespeare.org)