Preview: Realism and hard choices at the Gamm

A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen goes into regular performances this week at the Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket. Lead actress Jeanine Kane describes the 1879 play, which has been updated to 1950s North America, as "still shocking even now."  I can’t wait to see for myself when I go to the last of the preview performances tonight.
Doll’s House is an important play for a couple of reasons: it’s generally thought of as the first play to use modern realism, and it’s also proto-feminist. What that means is that instead of a play in which the characters are one-note symbols, we get real people, in real, complex relationships, who make surprising and sometimes awful decisions. In fact, the play was so incendiary when first staged that Ibsen was forced to write an alternate ending for audiences of the time. But there’ll be no soft-soaping at the Gamm tonight; artistic director Tony Estrella has changed the original script only to update the idiom to one we can all understand, a familiar era just before the rise of modern feminism, when women were defined as housewives and mothers.
Kane plays just such a figure: Nora, the central character, a woman who undergoes a profound transformation when forced to confront some bitter truths. She’s a wife and mother, who at first seems dependent on her husband (played by Steve Kidd) and happy to play house. But then a secret from her past comes back to haunt her and breaks open the fault lines in her marriage. Her character’s two daughter are played, in first-ever stage performances, by Kane’s real-life daughters Brigid and Fiona, ages 11 and 9. "They’re enjoying it, and it’s fun for me to have them around," Kane says. But their presence personalizes the play’s events for her, she adds, which can make the last few scenes feel pretty devastating. Luckily, the girls are gone by then – their characters appear in the first act only, so Kane’s husband comes and scoops them up at intermission to get home in time for bed.
Director Fred Sullivan loves the casting, Kane says, because "when you walk in and you see those guys and they really look like me, it has an effect onstage."
Kane adds that she loves working with Sullivan, a well-respected Trinity actor (who most recently wowed in that theater’s adaptation of It’s A Wonderful Life) who’s also directed some great plays at the Gamm, including a recent, rollicking Much Ado About Nothing. As a director he "always knows when you can go a little bit deeper, be a little bit harder and give something teeth – and he’s always right," she says. "And he’s got an amazing ear for the language; he’s a great dialogue coach, too. I can’t say enough about him."
Rounding out the cast are Rebecca Gibel, who was wonderful as Guinevere in Trinity’s Camelot last year; Tom Gleadow, fresh off his success as Dylan Thomas in A Child’s Christmas In Wales at the Gamm over Christmas; Joan Batting and Estrella as a sleezy lawyer.
Doll’s House will run until Feb. 20. Tickets are $30. More tomorrow.