BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
Though she is not of Norwegian descent, Katherine Michelle Tanner knows the culture well. She grew up in Minnesota and studied Norwegian at St. Olaf College, a Lutheran school in the southern part of the state where lutefisk is not unknown in the student dining hall.
It was at St. Olaf where Tanner, as a freshman, first read Henrik Ibsen's 1879 play, A Doll's House.
"I remember being in my dorm room, closing the book and opening it right back up again at page one and rereading it," she said. "It was so relevant. I could not believe it was from that long ago. It was just mind blowing."
Today, Tanner is starring as Nora in Ibsen's seminal feminist play, which opens Friday at American Stage in a production directed by Seth Gordon. She has reached back to her college days by getting in touch with her language professor at St. Olaf, Solveig Zempel, emailing back and forth about nuances in the original Norwegian of Ibsen's play and making copious notes in her own script. Gordon is using a contemporary adaptation by Kelly Lapczynski, an actor and writer in Tennessee.
Tanner is playing for the first time the Norwegian housewife who forges a signature and has to face the consequences. Nora's controlling husband, Torvald, is played by Christopher Swan; Lauren Wood is her friend, Christine; John Woodson is her confidante, the dying Dr. Rank; and Steve Garland is her blackmailer, Nils Krogstad.
"I've been thinking a lot of my grandmother, because she was born in 1900, and her mother, who was born in the 1870s," said Tanner, who is from the Mississippi River town of Hastings, Minn., and now lives in Sarasota. "These conversations (in the play) are not that far off from what she must have had with her husband, my grandfather, and her mother, and what she was able to do and not do. A woman's duties were to be a wife and a mother at that time. My grandmother had been a concert pianist, and so she went out and tried to do that, and then decided later to get married and have a family. I've been thinking about those choices."
When she was 19, Tanner saw a famous interpretation of Nora by Janet McTeer in a production of A Doll's House in London's West End. "I remember thinking to myself, this has got to be a religious experience," Tanner said during a lunch break in rehearsal last week. "The humanity that she brought to it was so refreshing."
At the end of the play, Nora boldly slams the door on her husband and children and leaves, thus launching a new era of independence for women throughout Western civilization. What happens to her after that?
"I think she goes to Christine's that night, then goes back home and is able to find work there, perhaps teaching or clerical work, and educates herself," Tanner said. "I do think she is able to see her children again."
And Nora's future relations with her husband? "I don't project that far into it," she said.
Tanner has played some rich characters, such as Ivy, one of the daughters in August: Osage County, and Catherine, the mad mathematician's daughter in Proof. But her closest role to Nora was in Charm, a play by Kathleen Cahill about early feminist Margaret Fuller at Orlando Shakespeare Theater.
"Margaret Fuller was a big journey too, but not quite the same," she said. "There's nothing I've ever played as exhilarating as Nora. Nothing. And I don't think there will ever be anything as exhilarating. As Nora you have to put it all out there onstage. There's no holding back."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.