It’s not clear who gets the last word in either The Father or A Doll’s House, the two dramas being performed in repertory at Theatre for a New Audience. But with productions this gripping and resonant, it really doesn’t matter.
Written by playwrights and famous rivals Strindberg and Ibsen, respectively, these plays offer gripping portrays of trapped women and, at first glance, their differing opinions of them. Strindberg famously wrote The Father in response to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which he described as “swinery”. And Ibsen was known to hang a portrait of Strindberg above his desk to motivate him creatively. To comment on similarities between the works by these two might cause them to roll over in their graves. But if that is the case, blame director Arin Arbus, not me.
After all it is Arbus who has directed the two plays in repertory, with the brilliant Maggie Lacey playing Nora in A Doll’s House (adapted by Thornton Wilder) and Laura in The Father (adapted by David Greig) and John Douglas Thompson playing husband to the two women. The excellent supporting cast includes Nigel Gore, Jesse J. Perez, Linda Powell and Laurie Kennedy in various roles.
Yes, The Father does contain lines such as, “You only need to look at a girl and she’s knocked up” and featuring a pastor advising a man to “take command” of the women in his house. And then there’s the scene when he tells his wife, with whom he is fighting over the education of their daughter, Bertha (Kimber Monroe) of her rights, “once you’ve sold something you can’t get it back” informing her that, when marrying him, she chose to exchange her individual rights for food and shelter.
(Add in the disparaging comments he and his brother-in-law make at the beginning of the play about their kitchenmaid, who is caught in the scandal of an unwanted pregnancy, and one can almost understand why Laura does what she does.)
It’s this exchange of rights that supposedly motivates Laura to plot against and torment her husband until he is declared legally insane and she has control over their home and their daughter. When we first meet him, he’s clearly in an advanced state of paranoia already, and, after Laura insinuates he is not Bertha’s father, the situation quickly escalates during the intermissionless drama. But, as played by Lacey, Laura is not a mere villain or even a plotting, revenge-driven woman. The suffocating atmosphere of her house, and her husband’s insufferable superiority, enhance the feeling of claustrophobia that permeates the production until Laura tells her husband, “I wasn’t trying to hurt you. I was only trying to breathe.”
A feeling of suffocation also permeates A Doll’s House, which follows Nora, the immature and childlike bride of Torvald, who finds herself caught in a scandal of blackmail. Lacey seems more comfortable with the flutteringly nervous Nora than she does as the calmly composed Laura, but Douglas is perhaps a bit too subdued in Torvald’s moral righteousness and superiority, as well as his objectification of his wife as a “little girl” and a “creature,” which he frequently refers to her as.
Lacey grows more composed as Nora’s marriage and financial well-being is threatened and later secured, but her belief in Torvald and their life together is shattered. The distance between the two is apparent when she quietly informs him she plans to leave him and their two children, stating “I have had a great injustice done me” and Torvald, bewildered, sputters about her “sacred duties” as a wife and mother.
Despite these plays being written decades ago, and adapted more recently than that, the relevance of both The Father and A Doll’s House resonates strongly with present-day audiences. Statements that are commonplace to the characters of that time, such as the scandal of a woman borrowing money “without her husband’s consent” or the “sacred duties” of a wife and mother, inspired laughter from the audiences of both performances but also are spoken in many places, including Congress and on the campaign trail to the White House, in 2016.
Especially affecting are how the conclusions of plays are staged, with scenes that are both haunting and damning of the characters and their decisions and offer new perspectives that blur the lines of good and evil and linger long after leaving the theatre.