Jolted by Ibsen, Stunned by Strindberg: Two Marriage Portraits at TFANA

Battle has been joined at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. In a smashing double production now being presented by Theatre for a New Audience, it's not only Nora versus Thorwald in Ibsen's A Doll's House. It's also the Captain versus Laura in Strindberg's The Father, one play versus the other, one view of marital relations versus another, one playwright versus another. The very stage on which these two works are performed suggests a contest. The Polonsky's auditorium has been reconfigured so that the audience occupies tiered seating on both sides of a rectangle that spreads from left to right before us. Does it resemble a tennis court, or some other field? No matter--you surmise that opponents will square off here.

We're likely to know how things go for Nora, the heroine of A Doll's House (1879)--there's a certain matter of a door. But what matters is everything before that, and even what follows it. TFANA is using an adaptation by Thornton Wilder that concludes by depicting, as Ibsen's original does not, the full domestic scene that remains in the Helmer household. The moment gives you a short, sharp jab, and I think it's a genuine improvement on Ibsen. As for the rest, we see in the first moments that Nora (in Maggie Lacy's performance) is vivacious, ebullient, possibly headstrong, and seemingly dependent in every way on Thorwald. We learn only gradually that she had taken steps years ago surreptitiously to preserve her husband's health by obtaining some money that paid for time abroad; she has very nearly managed to repay the loan, and it's only some coincidences and accidents of timing--which aren't nearly as obvious in the play's action as they would seem if I spelled them out--that threaten the whole arrangement. All along, Nora is the secret heart of this household, but neither she nor we fully realize it until events play themselves out. Whether or not you know what to expect, the final turns can make you catch your breath.

Far less familiar and far more surprising is The Father (1887), written by Strindberg as a rejoinder. There are correspondences on all levels between these works; each is a portrait of a marriage in conflict, in which the entire household, offspring included, is caught up; each involves a question of what the law allows--Nora is shocked to learn that something she did is forbidden, whereas Laura seizes with delight on a provision regarding madness; each includes a doctor as a confidant-participant and depends on some documents and an attempt to get past a lock; each deploys a lamp, underscoring a revelation in Ibsen, serving as a weapon in Strindberg.

Yet the two plays could hardly be more different. Where Ibsen dramatizes a domestic change that undermines an entire social order, Strindberg gives us something closer to a death match between the masculine and the feminine. Ibsen shows us a problem with a solution; Strindberg shows us an irresolvable opposition that can end only in the vanquishing of one combatant by the other. Patrick Marber's description, in Closer, of a human heart as resembling "a fist wrapped in blood" is a Strindbergian image.

But what is it about, you ask? The Father, aptly titled, addresses from beginning to end the question of paternity. At the outset, the Captain--he has no other name--attempts to adjudicate the case of a soldier who may have fathered a child. He's brought up short by the realization that no man can be sure he is the father of a child, and when he reports this to his wife, seeming a bit proud of this new tidbit of knowledge, she throws it back at him as if he's a dummy for not having thought it through, teasing him with the question of whether he's wondered about his own child.

The play is paranoiac and extreme, but in its way it's just as well-crafted as Ibsen's. The Captain is a scientist by avocation, given to resolving questions by experiment and evidence, refusing to accept anything on faith; his dedication to reason poisons whatever good sense he has, and so he can't trust Laura when, a good deal later in the play, she declares she has always been faithful. What's more, the Captain wants his daughter to follow a path like his, pursuing knowledge and becoming a teacher, and to that end he wants to send her off to school in a nearby town. Laura, on the other hand, wants to keep Bertha at home and raise her as an artist, and all the other women in the household hope to give Bertha some sort of religious indoctrination. So the "war" in the household--the Captain uses the term more than once--is not only a clash of wills between Laura and the Captain but also a contest over the future of Bertha. We can see Laura somewhat more clearly than the Captain can, and this issue may be her strongest point. It's clear that she twists the truth and manipulates men, but you understand why she's doing it. We can also see, through the Captain, that Strindberg despises her feminine qualities except when he indulges a desire to worship them; this perverse, dualistic view isn't her fault. On top of everything else, Laura simply outwits the Captain, in a way that's both thrilling and appalling.

A Doll's House gives you a jolt; The Father leaves you stunned. As a script, Strindberg's piece can come across as the shrieking outburst of a mind divided against itself, a good deal less balanced or controlled or naturalistic than Miss Julie, which soon followed it. But that gives you no clue as to how it should be staged. A few times in the course of seeing TFANA's production, I thought I detected unease among the playgoers and wondered if something a little more stylized would've won them over. Eventually I realized that director Arin Arbus's decision to play it straight and even allow some laughs (which David Greig's translation sometimes invites) does justice to Strindberg. She has staged A Doll's House in that style as well; Arbus has turned the same clear and undistorted lens on two divergent scenes, allowing us to read them as we will.

The two productions share seven players, all of whom serve well. John Douglas Thompson may be more impressive in his role as the Captain, because it gives him chances to fume and strut and bellow and plead like a child, but there are subtler shadings in his performance as Thorwald--Thompson is always quietly commanding, and he's touchingly gentle early on. From the playgoer's standpoint, each of his characters is sometimes enjoyably hissable. These plays aren't melodramas; it's just that you can find attitudes in them that are still present, and equally hissable, in the world outside.

But it's Maggie Lacey I came away fascinated by. Her early scenes as Nora made me wonder what she'd be like as Hedda Gabler--but then I want to see almost everybody as Hedda, because I'm always ready to see Hedda. More to the point, Lacey has a riveting way of standing stock still, doing big things while seeming to do almost nothing. That makes her a vivid contrast to Thompson, and it's a rare quality.