A play about a woman who declares her independence from her marriage and her family was something audiences in 1879 weren't ready for. Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House shocked and offended people wherever it was performed.
The Norwegian dramatist maintained that his script wasn't about a woman; it was about anyone who had to live according to rules created by others.
But the drama tied in perfectly with the stirrings about women's rights that were being felt in Europe and the United States toward the end of the 19th century.
As the women's movement grew in strength and influence throughout the 20th century, A Doll's House became a classic, included in college courses in drama and women's studies.
A strong production of the play, directed by Kevin Costa, is being presented by the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in a new translation by Paul Walsh, professor of theater at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Ibsen's thesis is still fresh today, but he wraps it in a complex plot: a forged signature, unrequited love, blackmail, revelatory letters, couples parted by circumstances and misunderstandings, debts coming due, long-kept secrets.
The story centers on Nora Helmer, whose doting husband, Torvald, considers her a child and a toy. Nora, seemingly happy, plays up to this image.
Eight years earlier, she had secretly taken out a large loan to finance a year in Italy. The warm climate enabled Torvald to get over an unnamed disease that would otherwise have killed him.
To get the loan, Nora had to commit forgery. She has lived in fear of exposure ever since. Eventually, Torvald finds out and there is a confrontation.
In a fine performance, Christina Schlegel gives Nora the naive charm that captivates Torvald but reveals her as shallow, conceited and ignorant of life outside her home.
Today's audiences cheer Nora's resolution to leave her husband, confront life and try to find her real self. Some playgoers might want her to reveal a long-suppressed strength, ending the play on a heroic note, but Schlegel shows us that Nora's strength is tentative. She has a long way to go to achieve her goal.
Despite Ibsen's serious theme, the current production has many laughs. They come mostly from 1879-style behavior that we find funny today - primarily Torvald's superior male attitude toward Nora. Fondly smiling at Nora's failings, he is blind to his own.
It might be that Ibsen found the character amusing. Torvald, convincingly played by Patrick Kilpatrick, seems too good to be true - a model of honor and uprightness, smugly convinced of his virtue.
Nils Krogstad is the man who granted Nora the loan all those years ago and has haunted her ever since. Krogstad is not the stock villain of melodrama but a complex character.
He wants to work off his bad reputation and live honestly, but is buffeted by conflicting emotions - self-interest, desire for revenge, craving for security, even compassion for Nora. Little of this emotional storm is revealed in Scott Alan Small's controlled performance.
Kathryn Kelly is quietly moving as Kristine Linde, a school friend of Nora, who has a history with Krogstad.
Dr. Rank is a secret admirer of Nora. A sickly man, he is the victim of what Ibsen hints is congenital syphilis. Kristine and Nora comment on Rank's habitually subdued manner, so it's not clear why Charlie Mitchell brings a brash, emphatic delivery to the role.
Jan Boulet, as the maid and nanny, gets a great deal out of her few entrances. Her character has lived with Nora for years, and the audience can always see what she's thinking about her employer.
Brennan Johnson and Allie Hough add freshness and charm as the Helmers' children, Ivar and Emmy.
The dialogue, though newly translated, remains formal at times. It calls for precise enunciation, which the cast, particularly Schlegel and Kelly, achieves.
The play will be presented through March 2 at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays with 2 p.m. performances Sunday and March 2 at the Howard County Center for the Arts, 8510 High Ridge Road, Ellicott City. Reservations: 866-811-4111 or www.chesapeakeshakespeare.com.