Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

A Doll's House

The Vortex Theatre
Review by Rob Spiegel

Courtesy of The Vortex Theatre
While I saw A Doll's House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath last year, it has been quite a few years since I had seen Henrik Ibsen's 1879 play A Doll's House. The gist of Hnath's play is that Nora Helmer has returned to her home 15 years after she slammed the door and walked out on her husband and children, as seen in A Doll's House. The Vortex Theatre is running the two plays alternately through November 17.

A Doll's House is often considered one of the first feminist plays, if not the first. The story focuses on Nora (Abby Van Gerpen) as she rebels against her treatment aa a lovely, charming, and beautiful accoutrement to her husband Torvald (Brennan Foster). That's the set-up. In the reality of the tale, Nora had taken charge of the family's affairs for a year when her husband was sick. She took Torvald off to Italy to recover, while facing considerable financial difficulties.

As the story opens, a few years have passed and now her husband is doing just fine as a bank manager, delighted by a recent promotion that has put the family on solid financial ground. It's Christmas Eve, and the play opens with Nora coming home with an armful of gifts. She is greeted by the family's nanny Anne Marie (Catalina), Nora's three children, and later by Torvald. He asks what Nora wants for Christmas, and she insists cash would be best. Everything seems rosy.

We soon learn Nora had to borrow money to get the family through Torvald's year of illness. She had led Torvald to believe the funds had been given by her father. Instead, the money was loaned to Nora by Nils Krogstad (Ryan Dobbs) who now threatens Nora with exposure unless she can prevent Torvald from firing him from the bank.

Through the next two acts, Nora scrambles to keep the secret from her husband, especially since Krogstad has figured out that Nora forged her father's co-signature on the loan document. The drama is further complicated when Nora's friend—and Krogstad's ex—Christine Lind (Emily Carvey) shows up after many years of absence.

A Doll's House was notable in its time not just for Nora's final act of rebellion over her treatment as a trifle, but also for its realistic dialog, characters, and family relationships. Director David Richard Jones (one of the founders of the Vortex) sets the play in the early 1920s in the American Midwest. The elaborate set of the Helmer's home by Ryan Jason Cook is one of the best I've seen at any theatre in town. The costumes by Carolyn Hogan are just wonderful, an even higher notch than her usual high notch.

The casting is excellent, from Nora through all the major and minor characters. Jones made an interesting choice by Van Gerpen as Nora, the center of the story. She seems on the youngish side, especially given that Nora is a mother of three children who seem to span more than 10 years. Yet Van Gerpen just eats up the role. I've heard of actors who "act with their eyes." This has been said of Peter Dinklage in Game of Thrones, but his face often fills an entire screen. Van Gerpen does this from 40 feet. Quite striking. You can see Nora's entire inner world of conflict and strain, the false faces and sorrow, all in Van Gerpen's eyes. Foster's stupidly condescending Torvald is just right. Yet Van Gerpen is absolutely alive in the fire of Nora's heartbreaking struggle. She spins around the stage in desperation and torment, trying and failing again and again to keep her world from crashing. A stunning performance.

Watching A Doll's House after many years was surprising. Oddly, I hadn't noticed the strange nature of the ending. After Nora has struggled so hard to preserve the appearance of a lovely marriage, she turns and attacks the very heart of that marriage. What an abrupt turnabout. In the first two acts, and halfway through the third act, Nora shows no doubts about the value she places on her marriage and family. She fights like hell for it. Yet in the end, she insists it was soul killing all along. This dismissal of her family life comes out of nowhere, like it's tagged on to a play about a woman fighting for her family. This peculiarity is in Ibsen's script, not just intrinsic to Jones's production

The directing and acting in the Vortex production flows exceptionally well from start to finish. Bravo to Jones, his cast, and his production team for taking this old warhorse of a play and turning it into a dynamic and beautifully presented nail-biter of a drama. Knowing how it ends doesn't diminish the intensity of this story in any regard.

A Doll's House runs through November 17, 2019, at the Vortex Theatre, 2900 Carlisle NE, Albuquerque NM. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and at 2:00 p.m. on Sundays. General admission is $24, $17 for students. A Doll's House is running alternately with A Doll's House, Part 2, by Lucas Hnath. Check the Vortex website at to see the schedule for the two plays, or call 247-8600.