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An American Doll's House

A tale of feminist awakening in '20s America falls flat

"But you see, I can't do any other work," observes Lulu Bett, a well-bred spinster confined to domesticity in small-town America, circa 1920. "That's the trouble. Women like me can't do any other work." The trouble a theater company faces when staging Miss Lulu Bett -- Zona Gale's acerbic, 1920 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy of manners about how constrictive social conventions made life unfulfilling for unmarried middle-class women in a decade that hadn't yet started roaring -- is how much of a period piece the play has become.

Lulu Bett, an unassuming 33, lives with her nattering socialite sister, Ina, and Ina's smug husband, Dwight. Ina talks a lot without saying much; Dwight is the type to mispronounce French terms. Dwight makes a nice living as a dentist and justice of the peace, but it's Lulu who keeps the household running. Domestic work is her obligation; she's an old maid, and so she earns her keep thus because she's "not strong enough to work." Lulu is neither respected nor noticed, with Dwight making jokes at her expense that reveal not only condescension but hypocrisy. Also in the house are Dwight's plain-talking but forgetful mother-in-law and his and Ina's children: Monona, a spoiled eight-year-old, and Diana, a teenager bent on leaving the smothering nest on the wings of a boyfriend, bashful Bobby.

One day, Dwight's long-lost brother, the world-traveling Ninian, arrives and immediately takes to Lulu. Unlike the others, he recognizes her worth, and notices that she makes the house go round. Lulu is surprised and, gradually, pleased, especially with Dwight's enlightened talk about how it's not fair that "there's no telling whether a man's married or not, by his name." Ninian invites her to go with him, Ina and Dwight to dinner and a show. Lulu can't imagine dining out. "It's been years," she says, "since I've eaten anything that I haven't cooked myself." Dwight is dumbfounded that his sister-in-law is coming when she's never socialized before; he's even more dumbfounded that all it took to get her out of the house was an invitation.

Before they leave, talk somehow turns to marriage, and playfully, Ninian and Lulu recite the wedding vows. Since Dwight is a justice of the peace, he declares them legally married. Though stunned, they decide to make a go of it. But when Lulu returns from their honeymoon, she's alone: it seems Ninian had been married before, and though his wife ran off and he thinks she's now dead, he hasn't proof that he's a widower. Dwight, worried about how this "scandal" might disgrace him and his family, wants Lulu to keep quiet; Lulu wants to find out if the "bigamy" story is true. If it is, then it shows Ninian wanted her. If it isn't (as Dwight suspects), then it's likely Ninian concocted it because he grew tired of her. By the play's end, Dwight has been shown up and Lulu hasn't so much grown up as evolved.

More than 70 years ago, Miss Lulu Bett piqued audiences' interest because of its heroine's transformation from kitchen maid to autonomous being; in the play's original ending, Ninian's first wife is alive, and Lulu is prompted to seek independence on her own. But apparently that ending was as hard a sell as the original ending of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, and Gale, like Ibsen, had to come up with a more-palatable-for-the-times conclusion. But whereas A Doll's House is almost always played these days as Ibsen originally wrote it -- with Nora going off on her own into an uncertain future -- Main Street Theater opts for the revised ending of A Doll's House's American cousin.

In this version of Miss Lulu Bett, Ninian's wife has long since died and all is forgiven, resulting in a happy ending but making the dated play even more difficult to pull off, given that Lulu's "awakening" comes as much from Ninian as from herself, and leads to a conventional marriage. That she finds her salvation in the "first person who was ever kind to me" gives short shrift to the developing sense of self-worth and self-reliance evidenced in Lulu's battles with patriarchal Dwight. That she prevents Diana from marrying Bobby out of fear that her niece would lose herself in the marriage, but doesn't follow her own advice, undercuts both the sense of Lulu's growth and the text's point.

That is to say that director Steve Garfinkel erred by working from the outside in with his characters instead of from the inside out. Similarly, he makes things either too grave or too inconsequential, and fails to find the delicate balance that's at the heart of the curious, now nostalgic text. The humor is out of whack with the drama, and what Gale intended to be diversions become the issues, and what she intended as the issues become mere diversions. This play should at once approach us and distance us, but in Garfinkel's wavering stance both too much is at stake, and not enough.

This ambiguousness results in the performers not being on the same page. Some, such as Kent Johnson as Dwight, overdo the seriousness. Johnson makes his character little more than a bully, neglecting a foppishness we can occasionally smile at and a confidence we must admit to. Others, such as Karen Ross as Ina, overdo the lightness. Ross is so syrupy and puffy that she omits the vulnerability that would make us care when her complacency and comforts are rattled. We simply hate him and dismiss her; we shouldn't do either, but because we do, and because these are two of the leads, the action is largely undermined. As Lulu Bett, Lisa Morrison at the play's beginning is stoic instead of efficient; at the middle, she's sober instead of hopeful; by the end, she's earnest instead of transcendent. Though Morrison clearly has thought her character out, even giving her the mannerism of bowing her head in difficult moments, there's simply nothing in her (except a bland determination) to warrant Ninian's attraction. Not that Lulu would be much drawn to Robert Skehan's Ninian, who is equally uninteresting, coming across as sophomorically emphatic rather than singularly grand.

Only the supporting cast succeeds, but do they ever. Traci Lynn Shannon makes Diana a multidimensional flirt, all wiggles and chitters and needs and anxieties, perfectly delivering such lines as, "If you're going to be a great man, why don't you get started at it?" Melinda deKay is appealing as a wisdom-dispensing mother who can nevertheless be befuddling. Joel Sandel elicits affectionate sympathy as a bachelor who can't do anything without apologizing.

Maurice Tuttle's sets need no apologies, being the best I've seen from him. And Lucia Palacios' costumes are, as usual, on target. But while God may be in the details, this production, sadly, isn't.

Miss Lulu Bett runs through December 11 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard, 524-6706.

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