Re-opening the Door Nora Slammed, at PRT
Features by Les Spindle | November 9, 2012
Bruce French and Jeanette Driver in “Nora”
With Nora, Pacific Resident Theatre is taking a fresh approach to A Doll’s House, master Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s classic 19th-century drama, which ends with a symbolic door slam that’s as meaningful as the one that concludes Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.
Nora, the renowned filmmaker and stage director Ingmar Bergman’s rarely produced 1981 adaptation of Ibsen’s 1879 masterwork about a severely suppressed wife, opens Saturday at PRT.
Dana Jackson, a longtime PRT member who frequently acts and directs at the company, is at the helm. Actor Bruce French, another longtime company member, and an Ovation and Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle award winner for his lead role in PRT’s 2009 production of Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version, appears in Nora as Dr. Rank.
Jackson and French discuss their experiences as members at the 26-year-old PRT, as well as the challenges and joys of bringing this daunting but ever-relevant story to life.
French balances his theater projects with television and film work. “I’m lucky to be able to go back and forth,” he says. “When I started out, I worked in New York for about five years. I was doing a play at Manhattan Theatre Club, and we were all sitting around moping that there was not enough work. But I was the only one who packed up my Volvo and came out here, in July 1975. I immediately became involved with an excellent bunch of emigrants from New York, in a company called LA Actors’ Theatre. I was thankful I had a place out here that I knew was a home.” However, that home eventually evolved into Los Angeles Theatre Center’s resident company, which collapsed in 1992.
PRT became French’s new artistic home in 2000. He cites The Browning Version, Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, and Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance as his most challenging and satisfying roles at PRT. In his private home, French is married to actress and singer Eileen Barnett.
Jackson, a native of New Jersey who moved to LA in 1996, also has worked in screen projects, but she says theater is more fulfilling, especially at PRT. “I’m a real company gal,” she asserts. Starting as a child performer, and appearing in the second national tour of Annie in the early 1980s, Jackson migrated westward, and became a PRT member in 2001. She discovered a passion for directing at PRT and since then has split her involvement between acting and directing in about 20 PRT productions.
She has directed her husband, company member Scott Jackson, in PRT productions (her original name is Dana Dewes, which is how she’s listed with Actors’ Equity and which is still reflected on the members’ page of the PRT website). She has directed French more than once. A highlight of her work with the company occurred when she served as associate director to PRT’s artistic director Marilyn Fox in the aforementioned 2009 production of The Browning Version.
Though Jackson loves to direct, she also greatly enjoys acting – “Big Love in 2002 was the first play I acted in at PRT. I also did Rocket to the Moon and The 60s, and others. My husband was also in Big Love, and in The Hasty Heart.”
French and Jackson speak of their simpatico working relationship. Says French, “When Marilyn wasn’t able to be there on Browning, Dana took over, and it was always a smooth transition. It was wonderful.”
Jackson elaborates on PRT’s basic modes of operation: “The actors comprise the membership, and then there’s an associate membership which includes directors and designers. There are about 100 members total at present.” Besides mainstage offerings for subscribers, PRT has a Co-op that presents member-generated workshops. This production of Nora began in the Co-op last winter but is now opening in a full production.
French and Jackson point out that PRT’s mainstage differs from many local theater companies in a significant way. There isn’t a season per se. Successful shows are allowed to play for extended runs before the next project goes up. Jackson asserts, “Decisions are based on what happens, what’s going on in the world, what actors are available. That way, I think you get the best possible thing — something that is inspired. ”
Browning offered an example of PRT’s sometimes flexible ways of working, when necessary — and the resulting challenges: “During Browning,” explains French, “I had this TV job called Crash, I think it was on Starz. There were three weeks prior to opening when I was back and forth, working in Santa Fe. Dana and Marilyn got tired of rehearsing the same scene over and over, but that’s all they could do at the time, because it was the only scene I wasn’t in. They watched it every night. I rehearsed my scenes in my hotel room every night. It was goofy. But we all do this because we want to do it. That’s the only reason we’re there.”
What is the secret to PRT’s long-running success as an award-winning company with a reputation for offering superior productions of wide-ranging works? Jackson responds, “I can’t speak about it before I came here, but I know the heart and soul of the company is Marilyn Fox. And certainly [the late] Gar Campbell, who was a great mentor to me. His touch is still everywhere in that theater.”
French chimes in. “I say the same thing. Marilyn has a profound understanding of her company. And she knows what material to put before us. I think that was sort of true of The Browning Version. When Marilyn first offered it to me, I asked myself what I could do with it. But she knew there was something about me that fit into that part, and she also said the play moved her very much. So as Dana says, it all goes back to Marilyn and her artistic choices and her dedication.”
As PRT began developing Nora within the Co-op, Fox suggested Jackson as the director. Jeanette Driver, who is playing Nora, and Jackson began looking at various translations of Ibsen’s original play. Then Scott Conte (now playing Nils Krogstad) found Bergman’s adaptation, as translated into English by Frederick J. Marker and Lise-Lone Marker. “We read it, and it was the one I really wanted to do,” Jackson says. It received a Co-op workshop last February. “We rehearsed two or three weeks, then we performed for three weekends — mostly to see if this translation would be a full enough experience for an evening.”
French chuckles when considering the hurdles faced in interpreting and tackling Ibsen’s rich but demanding work: “You have to wrestle him to the mat and pin him down. Then in this adaptation, Mr. Bergman put his spin on it.”
There are significant differences between the original Ibsen text and Bergman’s much shorter rethinking of A Doll’s House. “To begin with, the cast is different,” Jackson says, “There aren’t any children in this adaptation, and the children’s nanny isn’t in it. The set is certainly different, at least the way Bergman designed it, and the way it’s described in the script. It’s very sparse, not realistic in any way.”
Nora was first presented at Munich Residenztheater, a company Bergman ran in Germany. It was part of an event that focused on three different women, from [August Strindberg’s] Miss Julie, a rework of one of his screenplays, Scenes from a Marriage, and A Doll’s House. On the West Coast, La Jolla Playhouse produced Nora in 1998.
“When you take away all the stuff from A Doll’s House on stage,” remarks Jackson, “what you end up with is how fine a play A Doll’s House is. I think that’s what Bergman wanted to put across, as he focused on the relationship between Nora and her husband. There is also some focus on the other characters in the play, and they’re all important, but the core is the husband-wife relationship.”
French comments, “For me, one of the main things Bergman has done is strip the script down to its essence. He had a sore point with Mr. Ibsen, in that the playwright had a tendency to explain everything. That detail was absolutely stripped away in this version, but sometimes to the confusion of the actors. The actor has to fill in a lot of the gaps. Dana is at the helm and she has kept her eye on the story, making it move forward, and making it clear what’s going on between the characters. All of the roles in Ibsen’s plays are so complex. It doesn’t matter if you are onstage for 15 minutes or 30 minutes or two hours, there’s always a lot going on. There are different ways of approaching these characters; various productions are so different. Dana has helped me find the approach that tells this story.”
After settling on Bergman’s adaptation, Jackson “didn’t go back and read A Doll’s House again. I have read it numerous times in the past, but I specifically didn’t want to have information in my mind that the audience didn’t have here. I didn’t want to assume that any of them had seen A Doll’s House. I wanted to have them watch the play this way, and have the story unfold.”
Part of Ibsen’s fame stems from his hard-hitting exploration of timelessly pertinent issues, such as environmental concerns (An Enemy of the People) or how women cope in a sometimes intolerant society (Hedda Gabler, A Doll’s House). Jackson believes that Bergman’s Nora adaptation retains an enormous amount of relevance. “The play really shows the points of view of two characters. I’ve been married almost 15 years now, and the play really speaks about the struggles between men and women. Even though women have come a long way, there are still issues. There are fundamental differences between human beings that have not changed at all. Hopefully that’s what we’re speaking to in this production.”
She notes that Ibsen’s mother was a very sympathetic figure in his life, adding: “That was coupled with other things I have researched — that Ibsen had a friend who went through a sort of similar thing to Nora. At the same time, Ibsen argued that he was not some kind of feminist writer. He said he was writing about humanity. That’s why I think the play is absolutely still poignant and resonant to everyone. We’ve had a great time with it.”
Nora, Pacific Resident Theatre, 705-1/2 Venice Blvd., Venice. Opens Saturday. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun, 3 pm. Dark Nov. 22. Tickets: $20-28. 310-822-8392.
***All production photos by Vitor Martins