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STAGE REVIEW

Change of era for Ibsen’s woman on the verge

Jeanine Kane and Steve Kidd in the Gamm Theatre’s production of “A Doll’s House.’’ Jeanine Kane and Steve Kidd in the Gamm Theatre’s production of “A Doll’s House.’’ (Peter Goldberg)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / January 29, 2011

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PAWTUCKET, R.I. — When we first see Nora in the Gamm Theatre’s production of “A Doll’s House,’’ she and her two children are belting out “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.’’

Uh-oh. What’s next, Nora and the kids settling down in front of the Philco to watch “Ozzie and Harriet’’? In updating Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 classic to 1959 America, will the Gamm overstock this “Doll’s House’’ with labored cultural references?

The answer, for the most part, is no. Artistic director Tony Estrella, who adapted the play, does modernize Ibsen’s language, and the home Nora shares with her condescending husband, Torvald, does scream 1950s, with period furniture, paneled walls, a record cabinet, and an artificial Christmas tree of spangled silver.

But Estrella and Fred Sullivan Jr., who directs this vigorous production, recognize the timeless power of Ibsen’s tale about a submissive wife who plays by the rules dictated by social convention until she realizes the hollowness of her marriage and her entire life. So they resist the temptation to elbow us in the ribs with reminders of the updated context in which the events of “Doll’s House’’ unfold, and let us connect the dots ourselves between the repression of women in 19th-century Europe and during the Eisenhower era.

Yet there’s no denying that because it’s set just a few years before the publication of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,’’ which helped launch the modern women’s movement, the Gamm’s “Doll’s House’’ resounds like a fire alarm, dimly heard at first, then growing louder and louder.

The action Nora ultimately takes — leaving her family with a final slam of the door — may not have been quite as unthinkable in the 1950s as it was in the 19th century. When the play first premiered in the winter of 1879-1880, it provoked such a storm of controversy that many social invitations carried this warning: “You are requested not to mention Ibsen’s ‘Doll’s House’!’’

Yet Nora’s final showdown with Torvald still packs a prophetic punch, especially as performed by Jeanine Kane, whose portrayal of Nora can only fortify the Gamm’s growing reputation as a showcase for first-rate acting. Kane builds an evolving portrait of a woman who is never as simple as she seems, and by the end is not simple at all.

At first, Nora projects a coquettish air as she flits about her home. She doesn’t seem to mind that her husband, Torvald (a persuasively smug, if at times overly broad, Steve Kidd), calls her “my little chipmunk’’ and treats her like a child. Nora banters flirtatiously with Dr. Rank (Tom Gleadow), a family friend who is nearing death’s door. The scenes with Dr. Rank stretch out to wearisome length; they are the only times during “Doll’s House’’ when you may find yourself looking at your watch.

Torvald is oblivious to the fact that Dr. Rank is in love with Nora; he’s oblivious to just about everything, even as he seeks to control Nora and lectures her about the importance of avoiding debt. “There can be no freedom or joy, my darling, in a home built on debt,’’ he declaims.

Or on secrets: Debt, as it happens, forms the crux of Nora’s dilemma — a debt she incurred on Torvald’s behalf. When he was suffering from depression a few years earlier, she forged loan papers and borrowed thousands of dollars — from the very bank where Torvald has just been named manager — so he could spend a restorative few months abroad with his family. The trip “saved his life,’’ she says proudly to her friend, Kristine (Rebecca Gibel).

But then a fellow named Nils Krogstad shows up at the Helmers’ door, played to twitchy perfection by Estrella, who wears many hats at the Gamm. Krogstad is the bank employee who arranged the loan to Nora, he knows about the forgery, and he has just been laid off by Torvald. Now, with blackmail on his mind, he is threatening to expose Nora’s secret, which would destroy Torvald’s career.

As her well-ordered world starts coming apart at the seams, Nora gets a glimpse of her husband’s true nature, and then figures out an even larger truth about herself. Kane powerfully conveys the awakening of a woman who first struggles within the web of deception she has spun, then realizes she is caught in a much wider social web that she must try to escape.

In her determination to escape that web, there’s a warning for Torvald and the rest of male-dominated society that might be found in the words of a certain Christmas ditty: You better watch out.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

A DOLL’S HOUSE

Play by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Tony Estrella

Directed by: Fred Sullivan Jr. Sets, Patrick Lynch. Lights, Richard Van Voris. Costumes, Marilyn Salvatore. Sound, Kerry Callery.

At: Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, Pawtucket, R.I., through Feb. 20. Tickets: $30-$40. 401-723-4266, www.gammtheatre.org