Pictured the Goodman Theatre's world premiere production of Rebecca Gilman's "Dollhouse" are Maggie Siff (Nora) and Anthony Starke (Terry). "Dollhouse" appears in the Goodman's Albert Theatre June 18 through July 24, 2005, and is directed by Goodman Artistic Director Robert Falls. Tickets may be purchased at the Goodman Theatre Box Office, 170 N. Dearborn Street, by calling (312) 443-3800, or online at www.goodmantheatre.org.
Photo: Michael Brosilow
Rebecca Gilman's Dollhouse
Based on the play "A Doll's House" by Henrik Ibsen, Rebecca Gilman's "Dollhouse" is a modern adaptation, bringing the original story into the present and proving that truly classic pieces of literature can have a timeless message, even when the setting itself may become outdated. As is appropriate for a dollhouse, every detail of "Dollhouse", a world-premier production of Chicago's Goodman Theatre, is noted and managed.
The set, designed by Robert Brill, creates the perfect mood for the production. As the audience settles into their seats, the large screen television plays commercials non-stop. It sets the mood, because according to Rebecca Gilman, this play is a play about symbols of status. In our society, that is most evidenced by the items that we possess. The stage has no curtains, so the outlines of the 'box' of the set are defined. There is a large scaffold behind the set that arises above it. There is space to either side of the box. What the audience is viewing is a large scale diorama - a display much like those Nora (Maggie Siff) later mentions in the play when talking about how her favorite art exhibits are dollhouses, so perfect because there aren't any people. But this play is about people and problems and anything but a perfect relationship.
Gilman has clearly researched and read Ibsen's "A Doll's House" quite thoroughly. The scenes, and characters in them, are told in nearly the same sequence as Ibsen's play. Names are changed, and characters are updated and altered. Dr. Rank becomes Dr. Pete (Lance Stuart Baker), a close family friend who has survived liver cancer. Nils Krogstad becomes Raj Patel (Firdous Bamji), a fundraiser for companies interested in stem-cell research. And Torvald Helmer becomes Terry Helmer (Anthony Starke), an investment banker.
The character names and professions may have changed slightly, but they are still essentially the same people. Dr. Pete is still a close friend of the family who is in love with Nora. Patel is still an acquaintance of Terry's from college-somewhat to Terry's embarrassment. And Terry is still proud and worried about overcoming debt, but not quite as proud as Torvald himself. In the process of modernization, these characters seem more understandable and approachable to today's audiences than Rank, Krogstad, and Torvald. Even when the names have not changed, the character has been updated.
The dialog and terrible secret have changed. But the plot and story have not. Nora is one of the most controversial female characters in drama. There was such an uproar about the original ending of Ibsen's play that an alternate ending was eventually added to soften the blow. Nora is also a character firmly planted in the late 1800s. So can she come, believably, into the 21st century? Absolutely. By getting to the heart of the story, and by going beyond the feminist issues introduced in Ibsen's play, Rebecca Gilman's stance that this is a play about status symbols and the trap of living up to societal expectations gives a believable set of circumstances to introduce our modern Nora. Perhaps Nora loses a bit of her controversy-in that we can all identify with her, or we've met people like her-in this more modern setting. But Nora can live and breathe comfortably in the 21st century. Her controversy is lost, not because the power of the character is lessened, but because this society is more capable of accepting a woman on her own. She doesn't have to slam a door to get our attention.
Maggie Siff takes on this new, thoroughly modern Nora. She brings a great deal of energy to the role and has a very physical presence on the stage, whether she's doing a hilarious Flashdance or running across the stage to jump into her husband's arms or hiding the $10 truffles from her husband. She's also using many talents-humor, dance, singing. Maggie Siff's portrayal is well-rounded. She garners a lot of sympathy for a character most working women would ordinarily disdain: a stay-at-home wife who can't even claim to do the very real jobs of housekeeper and mother as she has a nanny and housekeeper to do those jobs. She's enthusiastic and playful. Ms. Siff brings a childlike quality to Nora, an essential part of the role. But she also brings the strength that can easily be overlooked.
Anthony Starke takes on a modernized version of a character I detest. However, his Terry is no where near as rigid as Torvald. He also brings an extremely physical presence to the role. Tony's Terry is a passionate character and given to extremes of emotion, while at the same time reigning in those emotions. The role is physical, but it also has fun and affection. He sings along with music and encourages his wife's crazy dance; he's flirtatious and a bit dangerous. Tony brings a lot of conflict to Terry and makes him realistic. When Nora leaves at the end, Terry's devastation is tangible. And upon her return, his desperate relief and desire to return to normalcy-real normalcy instead of the way it used to be-shows a character that we want to root for. His subtle understanding of the character transforms the detestable Torvald into a character I want to see earn his happy ending.
The relationship between Terry and Nora is a strained one, which is well played by both the leads. Terry's condescension towards Nora nicely harkens back to the way that Torvald, in the original production, treated his Nora. However, Terry also shows a genuine affection for his wife. Whenever Nora is shaken by an outside influence, Terry notices and tries to look after her. But Nora is so tied up in hiding her secret that she can't allow Terry to help her. She deceives him, not just about her secret, but about how she feels about almost everything. How can he be expected to treat her seriously when she doesn't give him the chance?
Anthony Starke and Maggie Siff have very good onstage chemistry together, which is really a necessity in roles filled with the level of sensuality that these two are. Likewise, Mr. Bamji and Ms. Rich aptly bring across the genuine love and respect that that Patel and Kristine have for one another. The differences in the attitudes between the two couples, and the types of relationships that they have, are starkly apparent. And because of the depth that Anthony Starke and Maggie Siff bring to Terry and Nora, the audience wants their characters to get to that point.
If there is a flaw in this play, it is the reference to the different neighborhoods of Chicago, as it is difficult for an outsider to recognize the prominence, or lack thereof, of the various Chicago-area neighborhoods. However, as this play is focused on the problems associated with the focus on status, it is a necessary evil, and context clues within the dialog can tell an outsider whether the neighborhood is acceptable-or not-regardless of whether or not we know where it is located on the map. There is one scene where Nora mentions a Chicago neighborhood. Kristine asks here where it is, wanting to know the location in the city. But Nora responds airly, "Yeah, where is THAT!?" Nora's response is telling us that no one who is, or who wants to be, anyone would ever live there. Two entirely different meanings out of the same sentence. Where is that?
At the time that Ibsen wrote "A Doll's House," the situation was highly relevant. It made audiences squirm because they could see themselves in the character's place. Ibsen was embraced by feminists because he wrote plays which highlighted the situations that women could face in an unequal society. Ibsen, however, considered himself to be a humanist. However, one of the drawbacks of writing a 'problem play' is that by highlighting a problem, it shows the need for solutions. Since the writing of "A Doll's House," the female condition has improved to the point that Ibsen's play outdated itself. Gilman's play, "Dollhouse," is a great testimony to both her vision and her ability to rise to a challenge, as well as Ibsen's original work. Gilman's characters make the audience squirm, because we all understand the draw of living beyond our means and relying on credit cards to supplement our income. We all understand the dangers of injuries which can destroy our financial security in an instant. Gilman's play is a modern 'problem play'. Like Ibsen, she does not offer a solution, only a window through which to observe it. And it leaves us with a question: are we willing to take up her challenge and solve this problem?
The Goodman Theatre's production of "Dollhouse" is excellent, and I highly recommend it.