It’s said that by the time an actress understands Romeo’s Juliet, she’s too old to play the part. That is to say, Shakespeare’s tragic heroine is an impossible fiction, worldly beyond her years.
Something similar could be said of Henrik Ibsen’s Nora, the central character in his play “A Doll’s House,” a production of which opened Thursday in UMD’s Marshall Performing Arts Center.
Katelin Delorenzo gives a perfectly burnished performance in the role, but a 20ish college student simply lacks the gravitas to portray a woman eight years into a demeaning marriage who’s a chronic liar and holder of a dark secret.
Delorenzo’s portrayal of Nora’s bubbly, playful demeanor in Act I is utterly without undertones. And her Act III confrontation with Torvald, when she tells him “our home’s been nothing but a doll house (and) I’ve been your doll wife,” lacks the intensity of long-held resentment bursting forth.
Granted, a willing suspension of disbelief is the essential requirement of the playgoer. And student theater rarely has much choice in the age of performers. But the circumstances of Nora’s life, and how they’ve shaped her personality, are so essential to Ibsen’s story that they simply must be portrayed with more credibility than this production can manage.
If Delorenzo was born too late for her part, so too was Jayson Speters, who turns in a technically impeccable performance but can’t muster the dismissiveness with which Torvald Helmer sees his wife. Born late in the 20th century and reared in a world that has never been without feminism, he delivers Torvald’s belittling endearments - squirrel, songbird, etc. - without a hint of sugary patronization.
Similarly, his (today) outrageously paternalistic and sexist statements in Act III are delivered with all the conviction he might bring to reading a fairy tale aloud. How could it be otherwise; he’s likely never heard them uttered seriously in real life.
It is only in the play’s final, heartbreaking scene that Delorenzo and Speters generate a thoroughly affecting dynamic.
The blameless deficiencies of the two lead actors notwithstanding, UMD’s production is excellent theater. Director Tom Isbell has taken William Archer’s translation, which significantly tightened and brightened Ibsen’s original script, and added moments of laugh-out-loud humor. He also has demanded a brisk, crisp performance of a play that can sometimes seem stodgy and old-fashioned.
Curtis Phillips’ 19th century Norwegian living room, complete with tiled stove, is lighted by Solveig Bloomquist to capture the effect of pre-electricity illumination.
Patricia Dennis’ costumes are carefully correct, in period terms, down to Thorvald’s ankle-height lace-up shoes.
Isbell’s supporting cast is strong, none of them burdened by their unavoidable youth. Particularly striking is Erik Meixelsperger as Krogstad, who threatens to disclose Nora’s secret unless she prevails upon Torvald to keep Krogstad in his job at the bank. Meixelsperger has a perfect villain’s sneer and conveys a palpable desperation when demanding Nora’s aid.
Paul Brissett is a Duluth writer and amateur actor who has appeared in numerous community theater productions.
If you go
What: “A Doll’s House”
Where: Marshall Performing Arts Center, UMD
When: 7:30 p.m. today, Saturday and Oct. 8–11 and 2 p.m. Oct. 5
For information: (218) 726-8561 or tickets.