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St. Louis by Sarah Boslaugh

A Doll's House
St. Louis Actors' Studio

Also see Richard's review of Outlying Islands

I know it's one of the great masterpieces of the modern Western theatre but until this past Sunday I had only seen one theatrical presentation of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. That was the Broadway production of about twelve years ago directed by Anthony Page and starring Janet McTeer, performed at the Belasco Theatre which seats just over 1000. So when I heard that the St. Louis Actors' Studio was going to perform A Doll's House at the Gaslight Theatre, which I'm guessing seats more like 100, my first response was to wonder how they would manage to suggest a comfortable middle-class living room on that theatre's tiny stage.

I needn't have worried. Patrick Huber's set is a marvel, making the Gaslight stage seem much larger than it really is, and under Milt Zoth's direction, this production never feels cramped. Zoth also does a great job of keeping the action moving and getting actors on and off stage through two on-stage doors as well as one aisle, although having actors enter from and exit to the street is distracting at a matinee performance because light and noise from the street floods the darkened theatre every time an exterior door is opened.

Of course there's much more to a production than just the set and I was also curious as to how Zoth and company would deal with the meaty ethical issues which pervade this play. In A Doll's House Ibsen is concerned with far more than women's place in society. Eight years or so ahead of Lawrence Kohlberg he presents competing versions of justice and morality (contrasting Torvald's self-righteous letter-of-the-law interpretation with Nora's far more complex consideration of motivations and circumstances) and also questions what it means to be mature (it's not for nothing that Dr. Rank considers Torvald a child when it comes to serious matters like life and death). There's also some treatment of economic inequality as well as another recurrent Ibsen subject, venereal disease, so it's easy to see why many in 19th-century Europe found A Doll's House threatening to the established social order.

Not to worry: the Actors' Studio production fully engages with these ethical conflicts within an effective and straightforward presentation which lets the issues emerge from the story. Presenting A Doll's House in its original period was a good choice: the story remains relevant today but we don't need a modern-dress production to make that connection for us. I've recently been catching up with "Mad Men" (the television series set in America around 1960) and it struck me during this performance how similar Nora's character is to that of another child-woman, Betty Draper, while Torvald is more like the immature and clueless Pete Campbell who never stops to consider how many unearned privileges he enjoys. Both types of character are alive and well in our real world as well as our popular media today so you don't have to work very hard at all to understand the conflicts in Ibsen's play.

Julie Layton rules the stage as Nora, who first appears positively childlike but gradually reveals the steel beneath the surface and thus is entirely believable when she makes her monumental announcement near the end of the play. Layton is matched by Travis Estes (her real-life husband) as Torvald: Estes fully commits to this remarkably unlikeable character who begins to catch on far too late to do himself or his wife any good. Chad Morris finds depth in the character of Dr. Rank while Missy Miller as Christine and Greg Johnston as Krogstad are a bit more hesitant early on (making for some awkward moments for Krogstad: it must be hard to blackmail people if you're unsure of yourself!), but both settle into their roles as the performance progresses. Sally Eaton as the Krogstads' longtime maid, and Aliyah Studt and Cam Vennard as the Krogstad children have less to do but fulfill their roles admirably.

The technical production values are excellent across the board. Patrick Huber's lighting design effectively complements his set, Robin Weatherall provides an interesting selection of between-acts music, and Teresa Doggett's costumes place the story realistically in late 19th century Europe. All in all, this is a satisfying production of a classic play.

A Doll's House will be performed at the Gaslight Theatre through April 18, 2010. Ticket information is available from 314-458-2978. The next production of the St. Louis Actors' Studio will be The State of Marriage, written and directed by Joan Lipkin, June 4-20.

Cast
Nora: Julie Layton
Torvald: Travis Estes*
Christine Linde: Missy Miller
Dr. Rank: Chad Morris
Krogstad: Greg Johnston
Maid: Sally Eaton
Children: Aliyah Studt, Cam Vennard

Director: Milt Zoth
Assistant Director: Nancy Koplar
Stage Manager: Amy Paige
Set and Lighting Designer: Patrick Huber
Scenic Artist: Patrick Huber
Sound Designer: Robin Weatherall
Costume Designer: Teresa Doggett
Technical Director: Margaret Engel
Carpenter and Master Electrician: James Slover
Light Board Operator: Seth Pyatt
Sound Board Operator: Maggy Bort
Box Office/House Manager: Kimberly Sansone

* Member of Actors' Equity Association


-- Sarah Boslaugh

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