Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Nora: A Doll's House
City Lights Theater Company
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's review of How I Learned What I Learned

Roneet Aliza Rahamim, Melissa Mei Jones,
and Gabriella Goldstein

Photo by Evelyn Huynh
When Henrik Ibsen premiered A Doll's House in 1879, controversy immediately erupted when Nora, banker's wife and mother of three, challenges the society's definition of marriage and walks defiantly away from hers, seeking to discover who she really is beyond those two domestic titles. Later in 1898, addressing the Norwegian League for Women's Rights in Christiania, Ibsen said Nora was inspired by the prevailing belief that "a woman cannot be herself in modern society" because society is "an exclusively male society, with laws made by men and with prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine standpoint."

In her 2019-premiering play, Nora: A Doll's House, multi-award-winning and Scottish playwright Stef Smith re-imagines Ibsen's original story, stretching it over a century with three Noras in the years 1918, 1968, and 2018 confronting much the same chauvinistic, confining attitudes as does the original 19h-century Nora. City Lights Theater Company is presenting a compelling and often captivating Northern California premiere of Nora: A Doll's House, imaginatively and astutely directed by Silicon Valley Shakespeare Artistic Director Angie Higgins.

Three Noras each hold a secret that one describes as "the thing I am most proud of." Each is slowly, meticulously paying back a sizable loan she covertly took out three years prior to save the family's financial crisis when her husband, Thomas–now a bank director (1918), head of credit and collections (1968), manager of a short-term lender (2018)–was in bed debilitated because "part of him was damaged" from his Great War service in France (1918), because "the swinging sixties seem to have swung in a direction away from him" (1968), and because "the internet ... reminded him of all the things he lacked" (2018).

In order to obtain, as a woman, the desperately needed loan (difficult-to-impossible in each of the decades), each Nora forged her dying father's name–an act of love now threatening her seemingly perfect life. In each decade, Nathan, the source of her surreptitious loan, is about to be fired by her husband and promises to reveal her crime of forgery to all the world (especially her straight-and-narrow, patriarchal husband) unless she can convince her husband to reverse the planned action.

But in the three time periods in which each era's Thomas describes his wife in terms like "a delicate skylark" and "a little porcelain doll," the Noras' husbands outrightly reject her request, each appalled at the thought of doing what his Nora wants–an outcome worse than death in his world of total machismo in 1918, 1968, and 2018.

Roneet Aliza Rahamim is Nora 1918, somewhat demure but also with a resolute spirit. She is so proud to finally have the right to vote that she purposively has cut with the paper ballot a slash across her arm to remember the triumph.

As Nora 1968, Melissa Mei Jones often looks afar with silent expressions that speak volumes. She hints at inner desires to be free of the confined, almost suffocating experience she has as a wife and of a third child that has left her with a 26-stitch Caesarian scar. She dares to wonder what life would have been like had she instead used the newly invented birth control pills.

Gabriella Goldstein is a 2018 Nora with a sophisticated air and style who becomes almost frenetic when she tries to be the perfect host of her visiting college friend, Christine, a woman who proudly boasts, "I'm feeling free and loving it." In the #MeToo era, this Nora feels anything but free as she watches with sad, unsettled, but also strangely unconcerned eyes as her children play outside too near a frozen river.

Stef Smith has innovatively created a script in which the stories of the three Noras intertwine, with one Nora often completing the sentence of another as she steps in to continue a scene. Two Noras often watch as a third reenacts what they too have already or will in the future experience, with all three sometimes circling around a stubborn, resistant husband or a threatening blackmailer to become a chorus that garners its collective, female powers to counter the male opposition they are each encountering in each time period. Theirs is often a collective dance where reality, desire, and dream overlap.

Each of the actors depicting Nora also doubles as a different decade's Christine, the friend who shows up unannounced at Nora's doorstep and who represents in each era a woman who has chosen to have a career, to live "fancy free." With the addition of a silk scarf, each actor seamlessly enters another decade dressed still as her decade's Nora but now with the look and demeanor of a Christine, whose scarf is worn/wrapped in a manner to provide her a new, time-appropriate appearance and persona. Angie Higgins directs the constant in-and-out changing of Nora/Christine roles with such skillful ease that there is never confusion who is who or when is when.

While there are three distinct Noras–each costumed appropriately to her era by Kailyn Erb–Jeffrey Bracco plays in much the same manner and in the same brown business suit all three Thomases, a man who in no noticeable way changes as the century progresses. The same is true for the blackmailing Nathan (Kyle Dayrit) and for the family friend Daniel (Christian Pizzirani). The playwright makes it very clear that for all that has changed in these hundred years, one thing has yet to change: the way women were viewed in 1879 is much the same in the next century and even into the 21st century. The Thomases themselves have stayed largely the same man as Torvald was in Ibsen's original telling of A Doll's House.

Ron Gasparinetti has underlined Thomas' frequent description of his wife as his "skylark" or "little songbird" by creating a drawing room whose skeletal walls are in the shape of a bird cage, accentuating the increasingly imprisoned feeling that each Nora seems to be experiencing before she makes her final escape. Spense Matubang's lighting design keeps the focus on that confined space, whose furnishings are mostly bare, to enable our focus always to remain on the always-shifting, time-traveling personas whose decades change but whose stories stay the same.

As clever as the construction of the play is and as powerful as the performances are in this well-acted City Lights production, Stef Smith's script is at times cumbersome and even tedious as one or often all Noras speak in the third person to describe the feelings, motivations, doubts, or hopes of the current Nora in focus or of all the Noras of any era. The effect is used often enough to slow the action of the intertwining story at hand, especially if also enhanced by dance-like movements of the threesome. And while the shifting time periods clearly make the point–as noted above–that for all the external world's changes, the internal views held by the male-dominated society have not changed accordingly, the original power and suspense of Ibsen's iconic story sometimes becomes somewhat diluted as the play's technique supersedes the plotline and character development.

Nora: A Doll's House runs through February 18, 2024, at City Lights Theater Company, 529 S. 2nd Street, San Jose CA. For tickets and information, please visit