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Theater review

In 2013 it is hardly unheard of for a middle-class wife and mother to leave her family and strike out on her own. But Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 drama “A Doll’s House,” which shocked its first audiences with that scenario, can still feel immediate.

For “A Doll’s House” is no feminist pamphlet. It is not just about a woman’s desire for a marriage of equality and candor, but also the essential human search for an authentic self not strictly dictated by social customs and pressures.

At the start of Seattle Shakespeare Company’s at first gratingly cartoonish, later potent production of this watershed work (using Sean Patrick Taylor’s crisp and clear new translation), the Victorian-era housewife Nora Helmer is living a charade.

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Pretty Nora (Jennifer Sue Johnson) avidly plays the girlish courtesan to her fiercely proper lawyer husband, Torvald (Michael Patten), and giddy playmate to their young children. But as the familiar 19th-century dramatic devices of secrets, blackmail and subterfuge encroach on her, something radical happens.

Nora’s mask cracks, and the genuine person behind it is revealed. After that, there’s no turning back.

Ibsen gives us evidence, early in the play, that Nora is stronger and smarter than she lets on. Yes, she flutters around her “doll’s house” parlor (designed by Craig Wollam), impersonating the wifey who lives to shop, who is adorably impractical, and who is her hubby’s little pet, his squirrel, his “flitty bird.”

But all the while Nora is calculating how to pay off that hefty loan she secretly took out to help Torvald, and how to shield him from career-crushing scandal.

At first, Russ Banham’s direction goes to comic extremes. Perhaps to draw the starkest possible contrast with her later behavior, Nora’s flirtatious airhead act is milked for screwball humor. Like an alien from the planet of Lucille Ball, Johnson mugs and chirps, rolls her eyes, swoons over a sweet, reacts ludicrously to the troubles of her friend Kristine Linde (Betsy Schwartz).

Once a show’s tone is set for guffaws, people may keep laughing — even when it’s not so funny. And making Nora such a cutup and Patten’s Torvald such a pompous prig obscures the symbiotic nature of a union that’s a hollow game in some respects, but mutually vital in others.

The broad comedy sits awkwardly with the realistic, grounded portrayals of other characters who are more quietly engaged in socially defiant self-transformations: Schwartz’s determined Kristine; Peter Dylan O’Connor’s desperate blackmailer, Krogstad; and George Mount’s poignant Dr. Rank, an ailing family friend.

The production doesn’t plant all the seeds for Ibsen’s smashing final act, but ultimately realizes its powerful epiphanies. Johnson is an actress quite capable of projecting thrilling rage, hurt and bravery — which she does, as Nina concludes that her marriage has been an emotional sham, with both spouses trapped in false roles. (One only wishes that awareness was gained more gradually, throughout the play.)

Patten also, at last, becomes more lifelike. Torvald’s smug piety and superiority crumble when Nora is truly honest with him, and herself, for the first time. She does the unthinkable by heading out the door. But for her own integrity, and for the development of modern drama, she does what is necessary.

Misha Berson:

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