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Dollhouse: Figuring the Odds While Trying to Hold onto a Life

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Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House shocked audiences in the late 1800s with its ending. (Spoiler Alert for all the people who fell asleep in high school English.) Nora, the wife and mother, walks out, slamming the door behind her. This went against all of society's norms at the time about what women were supposed to do in their lives.

In 2004, playwright Rebecca Gilman was commissioned to write what turned out to be Dollhouse. Its characters are similar to Norwegian playwright Ibsen's in both their actions and personalities, at least for much of the first part of the play. But as Eva Laporte, who is directing this at Stages Repertory Theatre, says: This is the 21st century -- meaning things have changed.

This updated version takes place in Chicago, bringing in aspects of the American Dream, Laporte says. "Terry is the Torvald equivalent. He's the very masculine, one-task-at-a-time manager. It's about control for him."

So when she was casting the roles, Laporte says, "I was looking for someone (actor David Matranga) who could tap into that need for control." Nora ( Rachael Logue), just as the original, "is smarter than people might think; she may not be as smart as she thinks, though," Laporte says. "She's constantly making bets, playing tactics, trying to weigh the stakes and she has a very fluid feminine energy - 'I'll be for you what you need so that I'll also get what I want'."

The timing of Gilman's play adds a certain poignancy to it. "This was right before the cusp of the mortgage bubble crash so there was a sort of innocence that an upwardly mobile middle class had about what the American Dream could look like for them," Laporte says.

"This entire household is trying to craft the perfect picture of a family and a life. So we really look at it through this modern lens. What is the cost to have a truly intimate relationship with two people who are being fulfilled. Is that possible?"

Laporte says Stages producing artistic director Kenn McLaughlin selected the plays for the season which in general has been about dreams of self identity and how to fullfill them.

What's up in the air for most people will be what characters to like, Laporte says. She predicts that most audience members will be torn, just as her own cast members have been. "I think they'll find themselves rooting for each of the characters and despising each of them at one point in the play."

As in the original, Terry/Tovald is more than a little self-serving and doesn't really understand his wife. There's a measure of sympathy for Nora - who Laporte says: "really gets tossed around the set like a pinball because she's managing the needs of all these different people to get what she really wants which is a stability and the kind of dream of family she didn't have because her mother died and her father was a drunk who gambled " - but then she's not the most forthright person herself.

The three-act play runs about two hours and 15 minutes including its one intermission, Laporte says, and boasts a large cast complete with two children. "It feels faster," she says. The couple is set up in a picture-perfect little dollhouse having some of the worst moments of their adult lives, she says. Nora makes a choice in the modern version, one which many people today may not agree with either, Laporte says.

"But after the lights go down, what's the next day going to be like?" Laporte asks.

If you'd like to find out what's next, check out the performances of Dollhouse scheduled for April 3-28 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information, call 713-527-0123 or visit stagestheatre.com.

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