Nichols and Nora

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June 11 1997 3:30 AM

Nichols and Nora

The two greatest performances of the decade.

(Continued from Page 1)

By the final confrontation with her husband, McTeer has so skillfully foreshadowed Nora's transformation that, though it seems bewilderingly abrupt to her, it seems emotionally inevitable to us. Gone are her neurotic mannerisms. Nora now sits in an ominous stillness. "I'm saved," her husband says after the arrival of the forgiving letter. "What about me?" Nora responds, with a touch of meekness but at last with a sense of her separable self. Out of her stillness she suddenly shrieks, not as an appeal but as a demand, "I'm a human being!" Most astonishingly--for the first time in my experience of half a dozen Noras--McTeer even manages to make Nora's single most famous line ring true. When her husband says that no man would sacrifice his integrity for another person, Nora has to reply, "Hundreds of thousands of women have"--an impossible line for the character, a line in which it is not Nora speaking but Ibsen himself. McTeer's solution? She lowers her voice a full octave and intones the words in a constrained fury--the voice not of Nora but of wronged women forever.

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The trouble with this kind of detailed analysis is it implies that any competent craftsman could carefully study the performer's techniques and replicate them--Hoffman's "preparation." We can only be grateful that they can't, that Nichols and McTeer become rather than enact their characters--Olivier's "pretending." Perhaps all we can say of great acting is that it involves assimilation rather than accumulation, that the performer isn't so much a surrogate as a vessel. There's paradox in artifice. The supreme tragedies leave us not devastated but exhilarated, and the sublime actors, the moment their performances begin, stop acting.

Ross Wetzsteon has been a theater critic at the Village Voice since 1964 and chairman of the Obie committee for 30 years.

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