Jessma Evans as Nora and Kevin Kemp as Torvald in Nora by the Shotgun Players. Photo: Pak Han

Shotgun Players is always ready to try the off-beat or difficult play. It never insults its audience with the mundane or prosaic. So, one can see why Shotgun found Ingmar Bergman’s 1981 stage version of Henrik Ibsen’s immortal 1879 A Doll’s House such an attractive production. And an attractive production it is. With Jessma Evans (Top Girls) excelling as Nora Helmer, and Kevin Kemp as her husband, Torvald, there is lots of life left in Ibsen’s 138-year-old creation — with a few tweaks by Bergman.

Ibsen’s original script, in which the infantilized Nora finally awakens to her second-class status and walks out on her paternalistic, self-righteous husband and their children, was shocking to society when it was first produced, although now it is all too commonplace a domestic scene. Yet it can still be moving to observe Nora experiencing abandonment instead of adoration in her husband’s attitude, as she becomes aware of the meaningless and artificiality of her life.

Bergman’s script (translated and adapted by Frederick J. Marker and Lise-Lone Marker), does not dramatically alter A Doll’s House. Rather, it eliminates several characters, including servants and children, and tones down some of the more archaic language and pet names Torvald called Nora in the original version. But it is still interspersed with stilted dialogue that caused occasional, inappropriate laughter by members of the audience.

Bergman moderated Torvald’s archness by making him a bit more human, but Torvald still doesn’t get Nora at all. Bergman said in 1981, I see [Torvald] Helmer as a very nice guy, very responsible. [The play] is really the tragedy of [Torvald] Helmer. Bergman may see Torvald’s tragedy as his inability to treat his wife any differently than his society dictated. But to most audiences, the tragedy is Nora’s. After all, Ibsen based his drama on the experiences of a woman he knew.

L to r: Erin Mei-Ling Stuart as Mrs. Linde, Adam Elder as Krogstad, Kevin Kemp as Torvald, Jessma Evans as Nora and Michael J. Asberry as Dr. Rank in Nora. Photo: Pak Han

Beth Wilmurt, a gifted actor on the Ashby Stage (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), seems more accomplished at directing than one might think, knowing Nora was only her second turn at bat. She has concentrated on adding more action to the drama, and even included a suggestive sexual interlude between the Helmers.

However, at times the staging of Nora seemed to get in the way of the acting. Without any servants, Torvald’s faithful companion, Dr. Rank (Michael J. Asberry), Nora’s childhood friend, Mrs. Kristine Linde (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart) and the blackmailer, Nils Krogstad (Adam Elder) wander on and off the stage, appearing inside the Helmer house as if by magic. This problem is exacerbated by the Ashby Stage’s high platform/stage, which has no steps to aid entrances and exits. And perhaps there is deep meaning that I missed in why Nora pushed the heavy sofa on to the stage at the start of the play and a table and chairs later on, and why the well-chosen wallpapered backdrop moved forward and backwards during the performance.

Bergman didn’t omit any of the key elements of A Doll’s House, and his starker version focuses the drama. But the play is still dated, although not old enough to be appreciated as a timeless tragedy. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting production, presenting a fine opportunity to see Ingmar Bergman’s homage to Henrik Ibsen’s masterpiece.

Nora is playing at the Ashby Stage through April 23, 2017. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Shotgun Players online.

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Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...