PAWTUCKET – The Gamm Theatre has blasted the dust off a classic and turned it into must-see theater with its current production of “A Doll’s House.”
Playwright Henrik Ibsen’s investigation of social conventions and marriage has long been held in literary and theatrical esteem, but The Gamm has turned it into a living, breathing, emotionally engulfing experience. It’s a story told like never before.
That’s quite literally true. Director Fred Sullivan Jr. has set the play in American in 1959, a location and an era whose conventions are more familiar to contemporary audiences than those of 1879 Norway, when and where it was written.
When Sullivan couldn’t find a script to match his vision, Tony Estrella, The Gamm’s artistic director, set about adapting and updating.
It proved to be an inspired vision. The constraints of the 19th century – lamentably -- translated well to the 20th, and Estrella’s way with dialogue is realistic. The coup de grace, however, is an amazing, authentic cast.
The doll’s house of the title is the home of Nora and Torvald Helmer. Superficially, they have the picture-perfect marriage: she’s the homemaker, he’s the breadwinner, and he likes it that way.
What he doesn’t know, however, because Nora never told him – she didn’t want to injure his pride – is that years earlier she had taken out a loan to get the family through a rough time when Torvald was too ill to work. At the time, a woman needed a male co-signer to borrow money, and out of expediency, Nora forged her father’s signature on the loan.
Coincidentally, the man who arranged the loan, Nils Krogstad, now works at the bank where Torvald has just been promoted to manager. Krogstad has a questionable background, and Torvald, the moralistic nabob that he is, has fired him.
Krogstad now sees the loan and its forgery as tools to get his job back by threatening to expose Nora’s crime and destroy Torvald’s reputation.
Supporting characters appear as plot tools and representatives of Ibsen’s ideas. Kristine Linde is Nora’s old friend whose life took a far more independent path than Nora’s doll’s-house existence. Dr. Rank is an acquaintance of Torvald and Nora, but she considers him her best friend.
The plot has lots of elements, and the meanings and metaphors are what make the play the darling of academics, and probably sociologists, too.
But it’s the acting that will blow away Gamm audiences. Watching Jeanine Kane as Nora, you don’t even think she’s acting. It’s a subtle incarnation; even as the apparently content wife and mother, we have the sense that she’s trying to convince herself she’s happy – which also makes her ultimate resolve believable.
Steve Kidd finds the humanity in the obnoxiously superior Torvald. He’s not totally unlikable, but he has bought into a role that society scripted for him and isn’t open minded enough to question any part of it.
For his part, Estrella not only adapted the play, he adapted himself to become the blackmailer, Krogstad. People who saw him as the cocky Richard Roma in “Glengarry Glen Ross” will do a second take at his appearance, but it’s his demeanor and his voice that are so convincing.
Three more actors make supporting roles indelible: Tom Gleadow as the jovial but troubled Dr. Rank; Rebecca Gibel as Nora’s old friend, Kristine; and Joan Batting as Helen, the woman who raised Nora and now is nanny for Nora’s daughters.
Sullivan, the director, gives every one of the character an opportunity to express their inner conflicts and emotions, making this a play about people, not just ideas.
A slightly askew set that is symbolic of the Helmers’ relationship – look closely to see the tilt -- and costumes that reflect the characters, in terms of bright colors or quieter hues, complete the theatrical package.
From the smallest details to the over-arching concepts, this is high-caliber theater.
Performances continue through Feb. 20 at the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange St. Tickets are $30 and $40, depending on day and time of the performance; get them by calling (401) 723-4266 or logging on to gammtheatre.org.
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