We ask what cages the soul as if we didn't already know the answer. They're the simple (and, at least at first glance, inescapable) things: Gender. Economics. Race. Class. Insidiously, they morph from adjectives to identities, hierarchies based on the myth that individuals can be appropriately reduced to one all-important dimension or another. They tend to be imposed from the outside; how we see and hear—and are seen and heard by—those who are not us.
Sexpot, schizophrenic, doting wife, immigrant, ethnic slur, patriarch—what do these labels constitute beside the switch we turn off when we want to stop thinking about something? How does each reinforce learned helplessness, and the lack of imagination, in a culture or a family, that precludes the ability to picture any other option but the present, any other way of being except ours?
Two very different productions attempted to get at these questions last week in the area: Kenny Gannon's adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll House at Peace College in Raleigh and Manbites Dog Theater's season-opener, Blue/Orange, in Durham.
Though Gannon cites the dilemma of Marilyn Monroe in program notes justifying his relocation of Ibsen's tale to 1950s New York, his production seems to have much in sympathy with the mid-century work of filmmaker Douglas Sirk as well. For actor Sarah Thomas' smoky-voiced Nora is more imprisoned by her own dreams of being the perfect wife in the perfect marriage than she ever is by the demands of her priggish, patriarchal husband Torvald (effectively played by Michael Brocki), or those of the blackmailing financier Krogstad (a miscast Lance Waycaster).
From the start, Nora's lack of agency is striking. Ibsen's weird disconnect between his characters' present and their past remains. It's hard to square Nora's seemingly complete dependency in the play with the woman who once saved her husband's life by forging a signature to a surreptitious loan.
Still, in the first scene, Gannon's direction makes it clear that Nora believes the only way she can effect change is to shake her hips, shimmy her shoulders and make with the little-big-girl voice to her husband. And yet, in the long moment's pause between a husband's reductive call to his "little swallow" and her "cheep, cheep," we hear a woman calculating all over again the choice of accepting the role of the wife as pet.
Her apparent helplessness is only reinforced by the tightly circumscribed dance of flirtation and tease. A perfect wife must be seen as desirable by other men—including friend of the family Dr. Rank (given a nicely urbane reading here by Mark Filiaci). But the moment he reciprocates the interest, she cannot act upon it. The game is over: The moves remain of interest only as long as they cannot possibly be consummated.
This production reminds us that two contracts, and not one, are omnipresent in Ibsen's script. Worse yet, both by the end are clearly seen as unwise bargains, and coercive in the extreme. If Nora has skirted financial ruin under the terms of Krogstad's loan, she's come a lot closer to moral bankruptcy and self-negation while straining to fulfill the social contract of the 1950s as the beautiful—but ultimately powerless—little woman.
But is Nora at the end truly unable to intervene even in a matter as simple as the mailing of an envelope that could ruin her whole family? Or is she insisting in that moment, instead, that her husband, her friends and her world live up to their parts of the far-too-silent bargain she's been stuck with?
In this production, when she tests the contract, it falls apart, tumbling down about her. Thankfully, its collapse also takes down the bars of her cage in the process.
Once again, director Natalie Sowell presents our culture with a mirror of its racial beliefs and practices—one reflected in a razor's edge. We have surely not forgotten the harrowing initial production of Minstrel Show: The Lynching of William Brown which she staged at Manbites Dog Theater in 2002, before a recast (and, unfortunately, less effective) restaging was seen by larger audiences there the year after.
Joe Penhall's script for Blue/Orange similarly exposes the acutely short distance between the statements "Different cultures can interpret and construct reality in different ways" and "Don't bother; they're all like that."
In a British mental institution, two white doctors—a senior consulting psychiatrist who refers to himself as "the Authority" and a brash young post-doc—grapple over the diagnosis of a black patient. The younger one, Bruce (Allen Maule), is convinced his patient, Christopher, may be incurably schizophrenic and in need of institutionalizing.
The problem: We're not as certain Christopher (notably played by Trevor J. Johnson) should be released. And Bruce is so squirrelly himself (a social discomfort which Maule effectively radiates from the stage), that we can't trust the diagnosis.
Enter Robert (John Honeycutt), the not unproblematic consultant, whose initial avuncular manner quickly gives way to occasional scatological references and an apparent obsession with what he calls "black psychosis." After correctly noting that psychological diagnoses can rest on ethnocentric bases, he concludes that knowledge of this entitles him, even as an outsider, to research, develop—and profit from—a course of cognitive therapy that could "cure" this malady: blackness in a largely Caucasian culture.
Maule, Honeycutt and Johnson's acting are top-rate. Despite their considerable efforts, Penhall's script ultimately stumbles and falls during the second act. To some degree we expect such a work to mount the soapbox as Blue/Orange does, ill-disguising a social or scientific debate as dialogue on a number of occasions. By now it's a comic cliché to see a therapist openly pursuing his own therapy in conversation with a patient, as happens here several times.
And Blue/Orange permanently jumps the shark in the knockdown debates Bruce and Robert indulge in, first in private, and then openly in front of their patient. We can't begin to believe a psychiatric fellow would address a sponsor and mentor upon whose good will he was entirely dependent in this manner. Their middle and final brawls take what seemed a serious grilling of racial assumptions and expectations into the realm of cheap burlesque—quite a comedown from where the playwright began.
E-mail Byron at firstname.lastname@example.org.