Playwright Henrik Ibsen was clearly a man ahead of his time, as Stray Dog Theatre’s engrossing look at his world-renowned classic, “A Doll’s House” points out.
Forget reading it in high school. Ibsen’s prescient look at a stifling marriage in an oppressive 19th Century Norway jumps off the page in this acting showcase, featuring possibly career-best work from four principals and seamless support from minor characters.
Because of the strong performances by Nicole Angeli as Nora Helmer, Ben Ritchie as her husband Torvald, Rachel Hanks as friend Christine and Stephen Peirick as mysterious Krogstad, we are able to understand the characters’ growth and development, for our initial perception turns out to be the opposite at the finale.
Nora, who initially acts like a silly child, committed forgery to save the life of her ill husband years ago. He’s fine, she’s still in debt to a loan shark, and complications ensue, including blackmail, suicidal tendencies and living a lie and in fear. Her coquettish behavior can’t stop the truth from eventually exploding. This can’t end well, can it?
A good friend, Christine, although a penniless widow in need of the help the more affluent Helmers can offer, advises Nora to explain the circumstances to her demanding husband, whose narrow view of women erupts in a torrent.
The chauvinistic dialogue of the selfish husband was met with hoots, snickers and incredulous laughs by the modern women in the house opening night. Oh, how times have changed.
The three-act drama is tautly directed by Gary F. Bell, who has amped up the suspense, and the conversations flow well. Dramaturg Sarajane Alverson has given Frank McGuinness’s adaptation a jolt.
The ensemble is at the top of their game, and their quicksilver mood swings are believable. Pierick, who is such a likable person, plays a nefarious guy with a modicum of understanding, presenting him not as Snidely Whiplash, but a victim of life’s setbacks — interesting choice. Hanks nails the woman who has had too many hard knocks.
Ritchie and Angeli are natural together and in projecting their suffocating characters’ gender roles.
Of special note is John N. Reidy as Dr. Rank, Torvald’s best friend who is in love with Nora. He just elevates any production he’s in around town.
Melanie Kozak of Swansea glides inconspicuously in fine support as a house servant, while Joe Webb of Edwardsville and Simon Desilets are full of energy as two young sons excited about Christmas Eve. Tina Renard is briefly seen as the kind nanny.
The technical elements effectively enhance the production, with outstanding period costumes by Eileen Engel, especially Nora’s glamorous gowns. Scenic designer Rob Lippert of O’Fallon constructed the set with stunning vintage touches, creating a well-appointed drawing room.
When Nora’s independence emerges, it’s quite a moment. Truly remarkable for a 19th century work, which still retains its significant impact through Stray Dog’s sparkling interpretation.