Doll's House at the Gamm

It’s no walk in the park, but the adaption of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House playing now at Pawtucket’s Sandra-Feinstein Gamm Theatre is required viewing.
That’s because artistic director Tony Estrella’s inspired adaption of this 1879 Norwegian play underlines all the reasons it remains an important work. Snappy dialogue, real-feeling characters, and an update to late 1950s America – a time that feels so familiar that it’s easy to forget how much women’s rights have changed since then – all work to strip down and bare a plot line that has plenty to say about modern relationships and societal norms. Oh, and then there are the performances: It’s a small and uniformly strong cast with a central tour de force from Jeanine Kane as Nora. Watching Kane, who rarely leaves the set for the entire 2 hour and 15 minute performance, I was left with the distinct impression of having seen someone actually change and grow, right there on the stage a few feet away. It’s quite a feat to pull off, and an experience that, if you go, will shake you to your core.
The play is essentially an exploration of how a marriage can, with the full consent of both partners, become a total sham – and of how social pressures can work to choke any change, for all but the bravest, and at terrible cost. But Ibsen has plenty else to say, about women’s rights, about how people morally evolve, about second chances and death and parenthood. It’s hard to discuss this last point without doling out a huge spoiler, but the way that Nora comes to see her relationships with her father and her two daughters creates an unforgettable, heart-breaking moment at the end of the production.
With her own  two daughters playing her on-stage progeny, Kane may have embued those lines with special feeling – whatever the case, it’s not to be missed.
If you haven’t seen an Ibsen play before – I hadn’t – you’ll be impressed by the depth and breadth of his understanding. Director Fred Sullivan Jr. has clearly worked to bring out the complicated frailties of the characters and the way they remain likeable even as they do awful things. Steve Kidd, as Nora’s husband Torval, takes a role that could easily come across as one-note and makes it sympathetic, and it’s one of the best performances by this prolific actor in recent years. Rebecca Gibel also deserves mention as Nora’s friend Christine; it’s a fine and shaded performance, both bitter and hopeful. Tom Gleadow is excellent as sick, and heart-sick, Dr. Rank, while Estrella – despite a perhaps slightly over-wrought accent – slinks convincingly around as the disgraced lawyer Krogstad. He’s both viperous and vulnerable, manipulative and, in the end, noble – it’s typical of the characters in this play, none of whom act how you might expect, and yet all of whom act exactly right. It’s playing until February 20; bring your spouse, your parents, a group of friends – pretty much anyone but a first date. You’ll be thinking, and talking, about it for days.