When Henrik Ibsen wrote "A Doll's House" in 1879, conventions and corsets bound most women to hearth and home. Yet the Danish playwright busted through those stodgy rules with his strong female character, Nora Helmer. Shocking though the play was at its premiere, it is now considered a classic.
The drama earned this honored place in theater because of its continued relevance. Ibsen's story is about the world as much as it is about individual characters, and that inclusiveness withstands time. But because of its broad appeal, "A Doll's House" has been analyzed, categorized and deconstructed to death.
"It's mostly known by people as a feminist play," said Seth Gordon, who is directing the upcoming American Stage Theatre production. "Ibsen denied it and said he was writing about human issues. I see it as a story about a woman who is misunderstood by everyone around her and who is desperate to save her family and way of life."
Set in three acts, the play's beginning establishes the unequal relationship between Nora and her husband, Torvald. She is the child; he is the parent. By all appearances, they are an ideal family unit.
Soon, the audience learns that when Torvald was ill years ago, Nora forged a signature on a bank loan in order to pay off his medical bills. At the time, it was illegal for a woman to take out a loan without her husband's permission or a male to co-sign. Despite her best intentions, Nora is vilified when Torvald discovers her secret.
Torvald has played his role of loving, authoritative spouse well, but his façade crumbles when his reputation is threatened. He lashes out at the one person who always supported him. Nora realizes that the life she's lived has been a sham and she leaves, slamming the door to Torvald's cries of incomprehension.
Basically, Nora drops out to find herself, and that simply wasn't done in the 19th century. More theatergoers today could shout, "You go, girl!" without fear of being burned at the stake. While standards have changed (and women have forsaken the corset for Spanx), Nora's choices, her underlying strength and independence, and Torvald's weakness are still thought-provoking topics of discussion. And that's what makes "A Doll's House" a true classic.
Gordon said he'll maintain the integrity of Ibsen's original intentions, setting the production in 19th century Denmark.
"I'm taking a traditional approach to the play. It won't be a groundbreaking production, but the emphasis will not be your mom-and-pop's version. I'm concerned that the audience sees Nora's role in the relationship in a historical context. My guess is that many people here are familiar with the play and recognize its significance in history," Gordon said.
'A DOLL'S HOUSE'
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; through Dec. 23
Where: American Stage Theatre Company, Raymond James Theatre, 163 Third St. N., St. Petersburg
Tickets: $29-$59, depending on date and time of performance; (727) 823-7529 or visit www.americanstage.org