Some battles are never won. That pesky war of the sexes seems to be far from over, and even one of its minor skirmishes — the century-long tussle between August Strindberg and Henrik Ibsen — rages on. It’s been over thirteen decades since Ibsen’s protofeminist A Doll’s House slammed the door on marriage, and nearly as long since Strindberg responded with misogynist screed The Father. But at Theatre for a New Audience, those old Realist foes are still going at it. And here’s the surprising bit: Even though The Father runs counter to every modern piety (it’s a fountain of male tears), in this outing, it wins the day.
Arin Arbus directs the two dramas in conversation, steering a fine repertory cast featuring local treasures John Douglas Thompson and Maggie Lacey. A Doll’s House is a fixture in the canon and worth seeing if you’ve never had the chance, but Arbus has chosen the awful Thornton Wilder adaptation, full of sentences so gluey they trap the actors into odd, hyperformal diction. It makes it hard to recommend. The familiar story’s still there, though: Nora (Lacey) has been playing the subservient bride for eight years, letting her husband, Thorwald (Thompson), pride himself on his virtue while she pays back a secret (and illegal) loan. When the truth comes out and Thorwald turns out to be lame under pressure, Nora’s voice drops an octave and she decides to ditch the whole foolish relationship.
Nora is a difficult part: She must show us the pleasure she gets from her childish role, her small-mindedness in the face of her more independent friend Christina (a striking Linda Powell), and her sudden ascension into logic and empowerment. Lacey has gravitas, so her last turn’s easy, but the early parts of the play sit uncomfortably on her. (She overplays Nora’s idiocy, for one.) Arbus’s staging doesn’t help: Nora and Thorwald converse stiffly from ten feet apart, staring straight at each other, and the alley-style seating — between which lies Riccardo Hernandez’s beautifully appointed set — only accentuates the awkwardness. The play functions, but mechanically.
The same stage configuration, now clad in paneling and animal skulls, works far better for The Father. Thompson takes center stage as the Captain, a man locked in battle with his wife, Laura (Lacey). When she suggests their daughter Bertha (an affecting Kimber Monroe) might not be his, he immediately goes crazy from the paranoia. The local pastor (Jesse J. Perez), the doctor (Nigel Gore), and the Captain’s beloved nurse (a wonderful Laurie Kennedy) then watch as the Captain’s sanity goes whizzing by.
Thompson has played this role before — he went just this deliciously mad as O’Neill’s Emperor Jones several seasons ago. You can almost see him tucking the napkin into his shirt and preparing to make a meal of the whole juicy thing. Strindberg, bless his neurotic little mustache, never pulled his punches. Where Ibsen meticulously laid out a case, Strindberg stomped like Rumpelstiltskin over conventions. Thanks to a perfect fit ‘twixt actor and character, and with the help of a superb new translation by the Scottish playwright David Greig, here The Father conveys the vicarious sizzle of a men’s-rights activist exploding his own petard. You know it’s wrong — but god, it’s fun to see something so wrong go “bang” onstage.
The Father and A Doll’s House
Directed by Arin Arbus
Theatre for a New Audience at Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn
Through June 12