My wife and I saw a play last night. A Henrik Ibsen play. A Doll’s House.
Right away you know, when Ibsen’s name is attached to it, it’s not going to be a rollicking night at the theater. Nobody watches Ibsen to sing along with the snappy tunes or revel in the elaborate dance numbers.
No dances numbers. Well…one, sort of…but no reveling.
Just the words of one of the world’s great playwrights dealing with the issue that, one-hundred-fifty years later, we’re still addressing: what exactly are we doing here and how do we make it meaningful?
But I don’t want to discuss the play itself, but rather this Plainville (Connecticut) High School production. For one thing, it took place on stage. Yes, most plays do, but in this one the audience itself, lined up in two rows of about twenty-five, shared that stage with the actors. For most of the performance no more than two or three feet separated us. The set was probably supposed to make us uncomfortable, to get us a little too close to the dissolution of a family—close enough so that we couldn’t turn away to check our cell phones or unwrap a stick of gum. If this was the strategy, it worked.
And it worked mainly because the director, Plainville’s Jeff Blanchette, was able to coax Ibsen’s very sophisticated emotions out of fifteen- to eighteen-year-olds who, themselves extraordinarily talented, made us believe that they truly were the Helmers and that circle surrounding them; and that their little world was, indeed, facing a cataclysm. We could see it—we were just a few steps away. It wasn’t like watching an accident happen—it was like being in the accident. And when we experienced the final fade to black, everyone exhaled. Probably the cast too.
I have known the director for more years than either of us cares to remember, and I’ve always said nobody gets more out of high school kids—whether they’re singing or acting—than Jeff does. At this point he doesn’t need any effusive critique from me to pad his résumé, but I will say this: people who could have seen this performance and chose not to, for whatever reason, have deprived themselves of a unique experience. It’s not “seeing a play.” It’s being in one. And if you plan to experience it, and you get to the point where you’re afraid of forgetting your next line, then you’ll understand.