'A Doll's House' review — Jessica Chastain takes flight in Ibsen revival
Read our five-star review of Jessica Chastain in A Doll's House on Broadway, directed by Jamie Lloyd, which plays at the Hudson Theatre through June 4.
The new Broadway production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House starring Jessica Chastain is laser-focused, laid bare, and simply stunning. As always, the play tells the story of Nora Helmer, a wife and mother who finally summons the power to stand tall on her own two feet.
British director Jamie Lloyd ingeniously runs full tilt with that image. For nearly all of the play’s unbroken two hours, Nora remains rooted in a chair (vaguely Norwegian, a nod to Ibsen’s background) situated downstage, close to the audience.
Even when Nora practices a dance she’s performing at a holiday party, she doesn’t get up – it’s as if she’s doing chair yoga. Only in the final few moments does Nora rise on her own, stand erect, risk everything, and walk out. To go where? That’s the question.
The hallmark of Lloyd's vision — he directed Betrayal with Tom Hiddleston on Broadway and Cyrano de Bergerac with James McAvoy at BAM — is absolute certainty. That extends from the first time we see Nora to the last and everything in between. Chastain appears in her chair about 15 minutes before showtime. Arms and legs crossed, she gazes into the audience as she repeatedly rotates on a turntable.
It’s a brilliant and economical visual – and not just because Chastain’s so great she’ll make your head spin. Nora is a woman whose life goes in circles, and in this revival, everything orbits around her. Whenever characters talk, they stand near Nora, slide up a seat by her, or – what nerve! – share her chair without even asking.
The story takes place at Christmas, and celebratory spirits are doubly high. Nora’s husband Torvald (Arian Moayed) is being promoted at his bank. He’s a big deal. In his mind, Nora, aka “Birdie,” as he calls her, is childish – like their three kids cared for by Anne-Marie (Tasha Lawrence).
Torvald is wrong. When he was ill, Nora singlehandedly risked everything to save him, bending the law to secure a loan from Krogstad (Okieriete Onaodowan). It’d be a catastrophe if that came out. Nora knows that. So does her friend and confidante, Kristine (Jesmille Darbouze). But Nora is on the brink of being exposed. Not even her dear friend Dr. Rank (Michael Patrick Thornton) can help.
Written in 1879, Ibsen’s play packs sticks of dramatic dynamite as it takes on marriage, money, secrets, reputation, and power. It assumes up-to-the-moment urgency and accessibility thanks to the crisp translation by Amy Herzog (Mary Jane, 4000 Miles).
She’s a playwright with perfect pitch when it comes to dialogue. Upon discovering his wife’s deception, Torvald damns her in 2023-speak: “You stupid bitch!” That exclamation – and Nora’s response – enables the play to draw blood.
Absent of scenery, props, or period costumes (the cast all wear dark street clothes), the revival is about the words. When Nora plays with her three children, they’re unseen. When a cigar is lit, there’s no miming. Lloyd trusts the audience to fill in the blanks. Beyond smart physical choices, Lloyd cast the play extremely well. Supporting actors all deliver.
Since making her Broadway debut in 2012 in a low-lit performance in The Heiress, Chastain has won an Oscar for The Eyes of Tammy Faye and a SAG Award for George & Tammy. She’s in total command as Nora, letting her voice do much of the heavy lifting.
In the end, Torvald’s pet name of Birdie is apt. This real housewife is an eagle when she takes flight.
Photo credit: Jessica Chastain and Okieriete Onaodowan in A Doll’s House. (Photo by Emilio Madrid)
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