Review: The Chamber Theatre’s ‘A Doll’s House’ is a worthy retelling

Brian Hinds and Polina Shafran in “A Doll’s House” | Photo by Jasmine Jones

The Chamber Theatre has delivered another piece of the classical cannon from the 19th century with their production of “A Doll’s House.” The company’s mission includes bringing bare-bone renditions of these plays to Louisville audiences. And instead of lavish productions, they spend their social and monetary capital luring in some of the best actors in the city.

Their production of “A Doll’s House” is imperfect, but it features several strong performances and showcases the classic script by Henrik Ibsen, which is still relevant more than 100 years after its first production.

For those unfamiliar, the play follows housewife Nora Helmer (Polina Shafran) and her husband Torvald Helmer (Brian Hinds) as they navigate a crisis, and it reveals to Nora unsettling truths about her life. It shocked and unnerved audiences in 1879 by suggesting that a woman might not be completely fulfilled as a stay-at-home mother who is infantilized and treated as a possession.

I’m an unabashed fan of Hinds, so it’s no surprise I think he’s the highlight of this production. Audiences may remember him from Kentucky Shakespeare’s recent production of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.” This guy is one of the best actors in Louisville, and his performance here is exemplary — worth the price of the ticket all by itself.

He nails the velvet-gloved sexism of Torvald, treating Nora with a sickly sweetness that is unnerving for its ability to be simultaneously offensive and kind of endearing. Later, when Torvald’s anger and fear are finally aroused, you realize Hinds had that brittle harshness on simmer the whole time, waiting for the moment to unleash it.

Shafran does her best to match Hinds, and she nearly does. Her playful attitude in the majority of the production is flirty and fun, the exact kind of bobble-headed bliss Torvald expects from Nora. But there aren’t enough layers to her performance, and when her character finally begins to change, it feels a little rushed.

In fairness to Shafran, I have to mention I missed large amounts of her performance due to an audience member in the front row who wore a large trilby hat and didn’t take it off for the entire show. Many of Nora’s quieter scenes were played downstage in the intimate space, and instead of Shafran’s face, I saw this guy’s cranial fashion choice.

The supporting cast is filled with performances that run from serviceable to very good. Gerry Rose brought a growling menace to Krogstad, the antagonist of the piece. Rose is a fluid and protean force, as evidenced by his recent performance in Liminal’s production of “Venus in Fur.” Here he gives Krogstad enough humanity that we end up rooting for him despite his heelish actions.

Beth Tantanella is a warm, grounded and engaging presence as Mrs. Linde. She balanced Shafran’s energy nicely in their scenes, and and her scene with Rose in the latter half of the play crackled in a way that left me hoping to see these two on stage together again.

Joe Monroe as Dr. Rank went all in for the comedy of his character, sacrificing much of the dramatic heft of his role. The laughs he brought added some nice breathers in the show, which has the reasonable but still lengthy two-and-a-half-hour run time. Those Norwegian playwrights took their time.

Jay Padilla’s role is actually two roles combined — that of the maid and the nanny. She does a lot with little dialogue, playing most of her parts with silent looks and startled takes.

Beth Tantanella, Polina Shafran, Joe Monroe and Jay Padilla | Photo by Jasmine Jones

The technical aspects of the play were nearly non-existent — basic lights up and lights down, and a set made of sturdy and oversized Christmas packages to indicate the Yuletide setting and perhaps accentuate the way Nora is treated as a child.

It’s worth noting the Torvalds’ children here are represented by three actual dolls, likely because decent child actors are hard to find. It’s an interesting choice that again comments on the treatment of Nora, but someone unfamiliar with the play could be confused, thinking Nora is emotionally unstable and only thinks she has children.

Director Martin French delivers the goods, with the help of these actors, and presents a modern classic that will teach theater-goers a lot about how our contemporary theater is influenced by early realism.

“A Doll’s House” is back on stage Thursday, Friday and Saturday, March 23-25, at The Vault, located at 1031 S. Sixth St. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased online or at the door.