ST. PETERSBURG — For A Doll's House to be of more than historical interest, the change in Nora has to be believable. The journey from pretty, pampered little thing — the "skylark" and "little squirrel" of her husband Torvald's sweet nothings — to the liberated woman of 19th century Norway is a powerful drama, and it's the rare production that can really bring it off.
Katherine Michelle Tanner is the Nora in director Seth Gordon's interpretation of the Ibsen classic at American Stage, and she is utterly, enchantingly right as the girlish housewife and mother in a gilded cage at the start of the play. Tanner also captures the unexpected willfulness that causes Nora to break the law by forging her dead father's signature on a loan she took out to give her ailing husband an Italian sojourn. Trapped between the unscrupulous lawyer who made her the loan and her small-minded husband, she becomes frantic, dancing a mad tarantella for a Christmas party.
With all the persuasiveness of Tanner's portrayal, it is still hard to believe that she would slam the door on her marriage and children and leave for good. But the problem is not so much her Nora as it is the unsympathetic stick figure she is married to.
As Torvald, Christopher Swan looks every inch the up-and-coming banker (except for the dubious toupee he was wearing in Sunday's performance), but he never finds any complexity in the character. In the beginning, he is an insufferable prig, and in the end, he is a pathetic fool, but at no time does he seem like anything but a caricature. His clumsy, tipsy lust for Nora after the costume party is embarrassing. Such a lout is no match for her. There needs to be some equality of credibility between husband and wife for A Doll's House to make sense.
As the other couple in the play, Nora's widowed schoolfriend Christine and Krogstad, the widower lawyer who blackmails her, there are well-etched performances by Lauren Wood and Steve Garland. John Woodson is a fine, florid Dr. Rank, dying from an unspecified disease of the spine (congenital syphillis, according to the script). The most sensual scene comes when the doctor and Nora engage in some flirtatious banter and he fondles her silk stocking in the dimming green light.
The Helmers' nurse and housemaid (played by Danielle Calderone and Colleen Cherry, respectively) make appearances, but the couple's three children are nowhere to be seen. Gordon's staging is faithful to the period, with the fussy decor of the Helmer drawing room (designed by Jill Davis) and Frank Chavez's bustled gowns for the ladies.
The adaptation of A Doll's House, by Kelly Lapczynski with T. Scott Wooten, is a compact affair, clocking in at two hours, 20 minutes, including intermission. But in an effort to be contemporary, it lapses into some unfortunate slang. I had to check the script to make sure I had heard right when Nora says to Rank, "You really are a piece of work," which is the first time Ibsen's feminist icon has been made to sound like one of the real housewives of Bravo.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.