It’s seldom that a revision of a classic carries the riveting punch of “Nora,” now getting its overdue Los Angeles debut at Pacific Resident Theatre. This stark black-box take on Ingmar Bergman’s searing 1981 reduction of Henrik Ibsen’s immortal “A Doll’s House” grabs its viewers from the outset and never lets go.
A tinkling deluge of Edvard Grieg piano music from sound designer Keith Stevenson serves as conduit to Jeanette Driver’s definitive title heroine, first seen wrapping presents with carefully modulated childlike fervor. Enter the yeoman Brad Greenquist as husband Torvald Helmer, his paternalistic impulses in subtly detectable conflict with connubial desire, and thus begins a rethink that’s less a treatise on gender politics than an exploration of universal human dilemmas. Ruthlessly paring away domestic mechanisms and key elements of Ibsen’s 1879 landmark, including the Helmer children, which may unsettle purists, Bergman cuts to the heart of the narrative. It’s not your parents’ “Doll’s House,” but there’s no mistaking how boiling down Ibsen’s naturalism to its essentials exposes the marrow of the characters.
Accordingly, principals come and go from chairs located on each upstage wall. Merely that stylized choice yields mercurial grace notes: When antagonist Nils Krogstad returns from his menacing plea to Nora and Torvald rises to re-enter the fray, they share a passing glance worth volumes of academic footnotes. Delicate nuances abound, with director Dana Jackson exerting taut control over her actors and the text, translated by Frederick J. Marker and Lise-Lone Marker into poised and specific conversational English. The sparseness, in which something as throwaway as repositioning an antique doll reverberates, honors Ibsen’s intent with Pinteresque acuity that reaches profundity by the apotheosis. Designer William Wilday’s swag-curtained portico and minimal furnishings, Daniella Cartun’s archetypal costumes, and Noah Ulin’s judicious lighting support the cinematic intensity of the whole.
So does the cast, beginning and ending with Driver’s breakout turn as Nora. Landing in visage and quality somewhere between Sally Hawkins and Mary-Louise Parker, Driver inhabits the role’s steady transformation from naiveté to enlightenment with preternatural perception. Her breathtaking work amid a brilliant ensemble brings indelible emotional force to the proceedings, devastating in the final faceoff with Greenquist’s superbly judged Torvald, a confrontation that Bergman’s adaptation and Jackson’s staging treat as the post-coital awakening of one soul against the desolation of another.
As doting, ailing Dr. Rank, Bruce French supplies another of his deeply felt portraits, with the age gap between his and Greenquist’s maturity and Driver’s fluttering girlishness underpinning Nora’s patriarchal psychology The acute Martha Hackett gives confidante Mrs. Linde a dry, seriocomic tone that conceals a fjord of regret, and Scott Conte makes an audaciously effective Krogstad, ineffably moving at his pivot point. Everyone’s unified commitment is a veritable model of “less is more” and drives this incisive reinvigoration of an ever-trenchant staple of the world repertory.
Presented by and at Pacific Resident Theatre, 705 1/2 Venice Blvd., Venice. Nov.10–Feb. 24. (310) 822-8392 or www.pacificresidenttheatre.com.
Critic’s Score: A