Some plays and playwrights elicit reverential treatment due to their classic status and serious themes. Add a sensibility born of long, dark Norwegian winters and the overused feminist interpretation and productions of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” can be gloomy, portentous affairs.
Not so with Seattle Shakespeare’s current production. Helmed by veteran director Russ Banham, from a newly commissioned translation by Sean Patrick Taylor, this “Doll’s House” brings sparkling, fresh life to the classic play.
Taylor deftly peppers the script with contemporary terminology that makes the characters more relatable without removing audiences from the late 1870s setting. Banham’s direction focuses on the particulars of character and situation, leaving audiences free to draw their own thematic conclusions.
His brilliant casting includes his wife, Jennifer Sue Johnson, as Nora Helmer, the eponymous doll, and daughter, Mia Banham, playing a Helmer daughter.
The bright and humor-filled first act immediately draws the audience into the comfortable, upper-middle-class world of the Helmer household as Nora prepares for Christmas. She is particularly pleased because husband Torvald (Michael Patten) has been promoted to bank director, opening new vistas for Nora’s spendthrift ways.
But Nora has committed forgery in the past, albeit to save the life of her beloved Torvald. Discredited lawyer Nils Krogstad (Peter Dylan O’Connor) has knowledge of her indiscretion and threatens blackmail, setting off a series of events that unravels the Helmers’ seemingly perfect household to reveal the hypocrisy beneath.
Nora is the center of the play, and Johnson infuses multi-layered complexity into the part. Diminutive and beautiful, Johnson not only looks the part of doll-like Nora, she capriciously vacillates between childlike enthusiasm and slyly insinuating sex kitten, meanwhile masking a slowly mounting anxiety that is marvelously externalized in her feverish tarantella during the second act.
Seattle Shakespeare artistic director George Mount makes us laugh and cry in a highly sympathetic role as ailing family friend Dr. Rank.
As Krogstad, O’Connor is threatening and villainous, yet also sympathetic as an outcast from both society and love.
Betsy Schwartz convincingly plays Mrs. Kristine Linde, Nora’s old school friend, former lover of Krogstad and fellow social outsider.
Patten adds dimension to his somewhat-thankless role as the pathologically conventional Torvald.
All of the supporting cast is terrific, with a special shout-out to Cornish senior Leah Fishbaugh, who, as the maid, has few speaking lines but speaks volumes with her face agog at the goings-on in the Helmer household.
Craig Wollam’s clever scenic design is a literal doll’s house, opening to reveal the interior of the home.
Costumes by Pete Rush emphasize Nora’s doll-like cuteness in contrast to Mrs. Linde’s business-like attire.
Tim Wratten’s lighting and Jay Weinland’s sound design set just the right mood.
“A Doll’s House” plays through Jan. 27. For more information, visit www.seattleshakespeare.org.