Writers Theatre production rebuilds 'A Doll's House' into lively one-act
"A Doll's House" -- ★ ★ ★ ½
Every writer needs a good editor -- even pioneering writers like 19th-century playwright Henrik Ibsen. And he has them in writer/actor Sandra Delgado and Writers Theatre artistic director Michael Halberstam, who've refined Ibsen's proto-feminist "A Doll's House" in a most entertaining way.
Working from Halberstam's 2015 adaptation for Chicago's Definition Theatre Company, he and Delgado have crafted an astute, lively "Doll's House" that makes a big impact at Writers without making a lot of noise.
The play about a pampered, protected, upper-middle-class wife who leaves her family to find herself created a scandal when it premiered in 1879. Today, not so much. And yet, the self-emancipation of the titular doll packs a wallop, especially in director Lavina Jadhwani's canny, confident premiere, which unfolds over one act in less than 100 minutes.
Adaptations of famous works can be limiting, appealing mostly to connoisseurs well-acquainted with the story. Not this one. In fact, this version and Writers' intimate, funny production (I can't recall a "Doll's House" production that made me chuckle more) is an ideal introduction to this classic.
The action unfolds within the confines of set designer Arnel Sancianco's comfortable drawing room enclosed by a grand, green cage with gilded accents. It's the afternoon of Christmas Eve and Nora (a smart, spirited and altogether endearing Cher Álvarez) returns from shopping flush with excitement and loaded with presents purchased in anticipation of the wealth her husband's new job will provide.
Alone, Nora sneaks a macaroon, defying her moralistic, bank president husband, Torvald (a charmingly condescending Greg Matthew Anderson). Patriarchy epitomized, Torvald infantilizes his good-hearted, seemingly frivolous wife. Diminishing her with his endearments, he never lets her forget he's the one who indulges her.
Sneaking a sweet is one in a series of Nora's mini-rebellions. She admits as much to former schoolmate Christine (played with weary pragmatism by Tiffany Renee Johnson), a penniless widow looking for work. Nora confesses that several years earlier, unbeknown to a then-ailing Torvald, she took out a loan to save his life, which she has nearly repaid after squirreling away household money.
Problems arise when Nora's creditor, the disreputable bank employee Krogstad (a nicely complex Adam Poss), threatens to reveal her secret, which he'll keep if she gets Torvald to promote him. Playing the role with passion and desperation, the exceptional Poss makes this villain sympathetic without diluting the threat he poses.
That acting depth is also evident in Amy J. Carle's emotional performance as Nora's longtime housekeeper Anna Marie, who knows the meaning of family sacrifice, and in Bradley Grant Smith's performance as Dr. Rank, a man who endures the consequences of his family's actions.
Devotion to family and its cost to the individual animate "A Doll's House," but there's more to this seminal play. Ibsen hints at a revolution: the end of patriarchy, for which we're still waiting. It's evidenced by one character's death, another character's abandonment and the willingness of a third to place himself in a woman's capable hands. And it's made gloriously clear in the production's inspired final moments where we see Nora after midnight, outside as the snow begins to fall.
She's cold and alone, but she's free. And that makes all the difference.
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Location: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, (847) 242-6000 or writerstheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday; through Dec. 15
Running time: About 100 minutes, no intermission
Parking: Free street parking
Rating: Suitable for teens and older