Enjoy the Silence
I Can Find Almost Nothing Wrong with Seattle Shakespeare Company's A Doll's House
It's almost raining. The clouds are low. The streets are wet, slick, and reflecting red, green, and yellow traffic lights. I cross the street, pass EMP (still "looks like something that crawled out of the sea, rolled over and died"), pass the ghost of the roller coaster, walk down some steps, turn left, get my tickets, enter the small theater, take my seat. The lights go low, and the stage magically arranges itself into a living-room space (couch, chair, table, carpet, doors, windows), and we return to the cradle for the humans of my time, my kind of mind, my economic and class realities. This is the 19th century, a world that politically began with the French Revolution and economically began with the Industrial Revolution. It has its poets. Some speak for the new urban society (Charles Baudelaire), others for the struggles of the working class (Karl Marx), and others for the educated and financially ascendant middle class (Henrik Ibsen). The living room on the stage tonight is the center of Ibsen's A Doll's House.
The actors who enter the stage (members of Seattle Shakespeare Company) all know what they are doing, know their characters by heart, and play them with the ease that a mature pianist plays Bach's Prelude in C Major. True, Jennifer Sue Johnson's performance as Nora Helmer does stand out, but not by much. For example, Michael Patten, who plays Nora's husband, does not miss a single beat of his uptight character, nor does Peter Dylan O'Connor, who plays Nils Krogstad, the corrupt banker with a broken heart.
My only criticism of this production (directed by Russ Banham) is drawn from the set—it could have been more modern, more about the new appliances of the time, more progressive. Instead, its windows, engaged pillars, dentil moldings, and lintels look old-fashioned, cozy, and domestic. This is supposed to be the house of a banker, a new man with lots of new money. True, ancient Greek moldings and fixtures were all the rage in the 19th century, but to us at the beginning of the 21st century, this fact is not recognized. What we see are people living in the past and not the new age of science.
Nevertheless, the pleasures of Ibsen's play are contained in this adaptation. We see clearly the emerging mind of the modern middle class—its concerns, habits, politics, contradictions, and fears. For this level of society, which never feels as secure as the higher ones (the aristocrats, industrialists, and financiers), crime, madness, bad breeding, and reckless sexuality can, and indeed will, result in diseases and in the destruction of one's wealth and reputation. As these concerns and themes are played out on the stage, one begins to notice and feel the deep silence that surrounds this little middle-class world. When the actors don't speak, the silence fills the theater and one feels each character is looming above an abyss, a void, a nothingness that can consume them at any moment. But somehow the words return, the story resumes, and the silence recedes.