Henrik Ibsen's 1879 play A Doll's House is the world's most produced play, and it is easy to see why: strongly-etched characters, a vibrant female lead who breaks with convention, deceptions, manipulations, complex relationships, a paean to money, and a paradoxical embracing and rejection of materialism. Often produced in the original version, it has also been updated in a variety of productions.
Chicago's acclaimed Goodman Theatre commissioned Rebecca Gilman to create another updated version, this one set in Chicago in 2004, and Stages Repertory Theatre presents Dollhouse in its regional premiere.
While the parallels to Ibsen's play are strikingly successful and brilliantly integrated, all that may best be left to scholars - this is a sparkling contemporary comedic drama that stands on its own hind legs, and roars. Nora, the feminist heroine (some may challenge this characterization) is played by Rachel Logue with such warmth and charm, dazzling smile, sultry, voluptuous body and mercurial changes in mood that the audience, myself among them, can't get enough of her. It is easy to see why her husband Terry (David Matranga), work-oriented and controlling, actively lusts after her, and why his best friend Pete (Jon Egging) carries a torch for her that is still blazing. This Nora is comfortable in her sexuality, and uses it to her advantage as needed.
But it is the life-force in Nora that is so compelling - she conveys not just the siren song of sex unparalleled, but equally vividly the perception that she is a caged lioness, strong, seething with discontent and searching for - she knows not what. This is crucial, since Nora is also deceptive, lies, appears to be shallow, is a compulsive, impulsive shopper, plots but not well, and could be written off as an airhead. But not Logue's Nora, who commands the stage and our attention with such a finely nuanced performance that it may well be the triumph of the year.
Matranga as Terry rises to the task of being wed to a force of nature, and is excellent in establishing the sense of community so essential to a play about a family. Matranga's good looks and lean physique make plausible the sensual attachment of the couple, and he comes into his own in the powerful climactic scenes when Nora's deception is revealed. The entire cast is outstanding, Egging as Pete, Jennifer Bassett Dean as Nora's college friend Kristine, Samuel Jon as Raj in principal roles, and Michelle Elaine and Melissa Molano in minor ones.
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The play is brilliantly directed by Eva Laporte, who has found an outstanding cast, honed them deftly into ensemble acting, and kept the pace energetic and involving. (I did wince at Matranga's far-too-literal embracing of materialism toward the end, but, hey, it may have been in the stage directions.)
The play is about moral choices, but they are not black or white, but instead come in as many shades of grey as an E. L. James novel. Its success is that it portrays humans grappling with situations crucial to them, each one unique but perhaps similar to ones shared by the owners of the condo overhead or the condo beneath. What begins as well-intentioned but thoughtless behavior can mushroom into a tsunami destroying the fabric of an existence. But that wave is not water, it is money. Because of the acting and direction, Ibsen's pioneering, and Gilman's fresh take, we care, and we care deeply.
An updated version of a theatrical classic astonishes with its freshness and contemporaneous relevance, as brilliant direction, outstanding acting and a ground-breaking performance by Rachel Logue combine to create theatrical magic. This is exciting theater - don't miss it. Dollhouse continues through April 28, Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information or ticketing, call 713-527-0123 or contact www.stagestheatre.com.