note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
When Henrik Ibsenís play, ďA Dollís House,Ē opened at the Royal Theatre of Copenhagen in December 1879, it ticked off controversy among critics and audiences - so much, that when it appeared in Germany in 1880, Ibsen was forced to change his shocking ending of obeisant wife Nora leaving her husband and children to find her own identity. Despite Ibsenís protests that nobody else change his play, after he died, it has been twisted and pulled like saltwater taffy, with playwrights, screenwriters and authors putting their own spin on it.
In Theresa Rebeckís drama, ďDollhouse,Ē she has contemporized and localized the play, setting it todayís tony suburban Connecticut. It premiered at the Hartford Stage in 2001 and continues to spark audiences.
At the New Repertory Theatre, Director Bridget Kathleen OíLeary has gathered a stellar cast of Boston veterans who add depth and dimension to Ibsenís characters. However, Rebeck retained Ibsenís ending, which doesnít send shock waves through audiences anymore, given todayís emancipated woman in the Western world.
Making her debut at New Rep, accomplished actress Sarah Newhouse as Nora is compelling, shifting from a perfect, adoring trophy suburban wife who sneaks chocolates and shops frivolously with abandon, to revealing her shocking secret. When her husband, Evan, suffered a heart attack three years ago, and they were about to lose everything, she embezzled money from her fatherís business, aided by her accountant, Neil Fitzpatrick (realistically portrayed by versatile Gabriel Kuttner), which she paid back later. Nora confides her dreaded secret to her old high school friend, Christine, who is divorced, down on her luck, and seeking a job from Evan, after learning he was promoted to head a bank with 312 branches. Nora has no choice. Fitzpatrick, a hardscrabble Harvard grad, served 18 months in jail for his part in Noraís crime, taking the fall for her. As a result, his wife divorced him and refuses to let him see his three children. He canít get a job because heís considered a felon, and his life is in shambles. He threatens to go to the newspapers, exposing Nora, unless she convinces Evan to give him a job.
Rebeck interweaves the characters nicely here, including multi-talented Diego Arciniegas as Dr. Damien Rank, Evanís best friend who loves Nora and desperately wants her.
Rank has his own problem. Heís dying of ALS - Lou Gehrigís Disease - and is leaving, before his utter debilitation.
Capturing the dollhouse theme, OíLeary separates scenes with tinkly music box tones. Set designer Kathyrn Kawecki has created a tasteful, but not overly opulent, angular large room, with a luxurious, Baccharat-style chandelier in the background, as the dreamhouse Evan and Nora created for themselves. And Rafael Jaenís stunning costumes separate the couple from their less fortunate visitors and their brightly-dressed, Jamaican nanny, Julianna (Cheryl Singleton).
Unaware of Noraís sacrifices and plot during their crisis years, Evan accuses her of living in a fantasy world - which he created.
Will Lyman is flawless as Evan, commanding every scene, from his overly affectionate attention to Nora to his rage when she discloses her crime to him.
Jennie Israel is also captivating, understatedly pivotal as Christine, whose role should be strengthened and not left open-ended.
Regardless, New Repís ďDollhouseĒ is a provocative study in male-female dynamics, with fascinating characters and a plot that resonates today.
BOX INFO: Two-act drama, written by Theresa Rebeck, based on Henrik Ibsenís ďA Dollís House,Ē appearing through March 20 at New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown.Performances are Wednesday, March 9, and Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturday, March 12, 19, at 3,8 p.m.; Sunday, March 13, 20, at 2 p.m. (with talkbacks); Tickets are $28-$58; seniors, $7 discount; student rush, $14. Call 617-923-8487 or visit www.newrep.org.