Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

A Doll's House
Stray Dog Theatre
Review by Richard T. Green

Also see Richard's recent reviews of Intimate Apparel and Yasmina's Necklace


Nicole Angeli and Ben Ritchie
Photo by John Lamb
It's been 138 years since Henrik Ibsen's "problem play" debuted in Denmark, and 97 years since women got the right to vote across our own country. But somehow, this production manages to land with the bang of a great science-fiction classic, by the time Nora Helmer (Ibsen's childlike homemaker) finally declares her own liberation. (Critic Chris Baldick coined the term "problem play," but because it was a genre springing from the earlier "well made plays," dealing with social issues, not because there was some inherent structural "problem" with this amazing script from 1879.)

So how can it have anything to do with science fiction? Perhaps you've never felt that stunned sense of awakening at the end of futuristic films like THX 1138, when Robert Duvall finally escapes his underground city, or Alien 3, where Sigourney Weaver finally returns to her own world as a stranger.

And, like the end of this excellent A Doll's House, that's when you just can't help saying "I don't know!" "I don't know!" over and over—in absolute wonderment, at being delivered into an entirely new reality. In A Doll's House all our past familiarities and dependencies (and co-dependencies) are utterly swept away in the final scene, thanks to director Gary F. Bell.

Nicole Angeli is great as Nora, with an equally inventive and exploring Ben Ritchie (her real-life husband) as Nora's boundary-driven spouse Torvald. Thanks to all of them, once everything you know is wiped away, there is an amazing sense of renewal.

It's Christmas at the Helmers, Nora is spending freely, and Torvald is constantly chiding her. But after she went to a shady character to save Torvald's life, this same blackmailer has become ambitious, sensing an opportunity as Torvald move to a higher station. Suddenly the pressure's on Nora to make things right after taking a terrible risk, which she fears to reveal. The whole spectacle turns on her secret, and her naive attempts to bury it.

That's when outstandingly natural actors come in so handy. You can see the steady erosion of Nora's world, sometimes through narrow waterfalls of emotion washing over Ms. Angeli's face, and sometimes as great waves, at being trapped again and again. She's normally a terrific comedic actress, but to have that gift, one must first have a great facility for the machinations of the human mind, which is fully on display here. Likewise Mr. Ritchie, who usually accomplishes much with little, is unafraid (in the final big scene) to go from very drunk to quite enraged, leading to Nora's long-overdue reassessment of their relationship.

Of course we imagine ourselves to be far more sophisticated these days, but as little details are revealed about the Helmers and their friends, we realize how naturally disaster may arise from one or two inevitable problems of life. There are no clear villains; even Mr. Krogstad (the blackmailer) is as earnest as can be, in Stephen Peirick's very fine performance. And the always-intriguing Rachel Hanks, as Nora's old friend, is shocking in her final scene as she contemplates Nora's dreaded exposure—though shocking by contrast, because we've gradually accepted the Helmers' shared pathology as "normal."

John N. Reidy is excellent as Dr. Rank, friend and confidant to Torvald. He keeps our sense of pathos alive, even when Nora's own desperate search for a solution threatens to raise the tension higher and higher. Yes, she could have been the stock character in all those horror films who loses her marbles every five minutes, in her childlike way. But in this staging of drama's great domestic horror story, Nora is really her own monster, and victim, and savior too. It's just giddying, and ultimately empowering, how it all unfolds.

Through February 18, 2017, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave. For more information visit www.straydogtheatre.org

Cast (in order of appearance)
Helene: Melanie Kozak
Nora Helmer: Nicole Angeli
Torvald Helmer: Ben Ritchie
Kristine Linde: Rachel Hanks
Nils Krogstad: Stephen Peirick
Dr. Rank: John N. Reidy
Bobby Helmer: Simon Desilets
Ivar Helmer: Joe Webb
Anne-Marie: Tina Renard

Crew
Director: Gary F. Bell
Stage Manager: Justin Been
Assistant Stage Manager: Robert Kapeller
Costume Design: Eileen Engel
Lighting Design: Tyler Duenow
Scenic Design: Robert J. Lippert
Dramaturge: Sarajane Alverson


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