In Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll House," the marriage of Nora and Torvald Helmer crumbles almost as soon as they return home from a costume ball and remove their masks. It is a highly appropriate metaphor for a life built on illusions, and it is the theme that informs and illuminates the sensitive production that opened at Center Stage last night.
This theme is also evident in Tony Straiges' stunning set -- an expansive, virtually empty room, which, despite beautiful 19th century-style molding, is actually an abstract space. As the action unfolds, it becomes apparent that many of the walls are make-believe, and distinctions between interior and exterior are, at times, left to the audience's imagination. Nor is it surprising that Stephen Strawbridge's expressive lighting emphasizes shadows; after all, shadow play has been the foundation of the Helmers' union.
Of course, it helps immensely that this production, directed by Jackson Phippin, is extremely well cast. As Nora, Caitlin O'Connell shows us a woman-child who has led such a sheltered existence, she doesn't realize that her limited business knowledge can be a dangerous thing. O'Connell never lets us doubt Nora's native intelligence; she is simply a dutiful wife and mother caught in a time and place where women weren't expected to think for themselves.
Unfortunately, the one time Nora ventured out into the world to transact business, she got hooked up with a shady character named Krogstad, who was all too willing to lend her money for the cure that saved her husband's life. Stephen Markle builds his compelling portrayal on the premise that Krogstad's history is the opposite of Nora's. Krogstad is trying desperately to go straight; Nora is a straight-arrow inadvertently caught in a shady deal. What they share is desperation, and Markle not only heightens this common weakness, he elicits sympathy for Krogstad's strained situation.
This is not the case with Richard Bekins' portrayal of Nora's husband, Torvald, whose self-righteousnessoccasionally crosses the line between melodrama and psychosis. This Torvald is so inflexible, he seems ready to snap at any moment; it's difficult to remember that most 19th century audiences considered Nora the crazy one. Conversely, Cara Duff-MacCormick is the embodiment of level-headed practicality as Nora's girlhood friend, Mrs. Linde, who has led a life of misfortunes.
Even though the pace of this production occasionally lags, and the idea of a woman leaving a repressive marriage is no longer revolutionary, the attempt to live without illusions remains timely. That timeliness is enhanced by a new translation by Rick Davis and Brian Johnston, adapted by director Phippin.
An early clue is the lack of the possessive case in the title. The inference is that Nora is not a doll. She is a woman trapped in a doll house. Center Stage's insightful production makes the reality of this situation painful and pertinent.
"A Doll House" continues at Center Stage through Feb. 2; call (410) 332-0033.