It's the nature of the craft. Theatrical sets are designed to look coherent and complete from one perspective only: the front. All other angles reveal their true identity: a collection of surfaces with only empty air, space—and darkness—behind them, partially constructed rooms lacking any real foundation or infrastructure.
Yet it is no gaffe in Torry Bend's set design of A Doll's House when audiences, before taking their seats, encounter the exposed back of a side wall panel for Nora and Torvald Helmer's Norwegian house. The chalk-marked black matte paint and lighting cables that rig a wood stove on stage only serve to underline the hollow, artificial nature of the creation.
If those familiar with Ibsen's 1879 drama about failing gender roles in a failing 19th-century bourgeois marriage can already recognize the appropriateness of such a visual metaphor, believe me, when it comes to the current Duke Theater Studies production, they've seen nothing yet. Not when the rest of Bend's sparse furnishings and set, Bill Clarke's costumes, Jim Haverkamp's video design and Andy Parks' lighting place us in front of what seems a human-size dollhouse that was made a century or more ago.
But tellingly, this domicile is no lovingly maintained museum piece from yesteryear. No: imagine something from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina instead. In an unclean front room, mold and the elements have erased more than half of the pattern from the stained, deteriorating wallpaper. Time and neglect have applied the same faded palette of gray, beige and mauve to the furniture, the floorboards and a number of the costumes. Before the first line's spoken (but after an opening surprise that would be criminal to identify), we already know: This is no healthy place for children or adults to linger, much less play.
Director Ellen Hemphill, one of the region's true theatrical auteurs, combines these staging elements with composer Allison Leyton-Brown's similarly atmospheric score for a small ensemble and theremin to achieve a sharp, distinctive vision of Ibsen's work. Using an intriguing 2004 adaptation by playwright Bryony Lavery (Frozen), Hemphill sees both Nora and Torvald as boorish, socially oblivious members of a nouveau nearly riche, about to celebrate the holidays before Torvald takes a manager's position at a bank in the coming new year.
But where previous productions have cast the wife in a more sympathetic light, here Nora (Jenny Madorsky) gushes on about the money and influence Torvald (Michael Oliver) will have and the price of their vacations and other luxuries, thus overwhelming Mrs. Linde (a distinguished, nuanced Jamie Bell), a visiting childhood friend who clearly lacks all of those benefits. By the time Nora poo-poos a concern of her friend Dr. Rank (Alpha Tessema) with the words, "Who cares about the poor in society?" we're wondering if the main emotion we'll ever be asked to feel for her is schadenfreude.
Madorsky's Nora mounts the cliffs of dread and near-hysteria after becoming caught in the machinations of the insidious Krogstad (Ali Yalgin), who threatens to ruin her family if he is dismissed from Torvald's bank. But the play's famous endgame, in which Ibsen makes a dramatic break from the melodramas of the 1800s, is better funded here when we're less sympathetic to Nora's character. We wind up agreeing with Mrs. Linde; only if Nora and Torvald get what's coming do they (and their culture) stand a chance of actually growing up. It's telling that Mrs. Linde's acts ultimately determine when playtime is over.