Dollhouse at the Guthrie Theater

Sarah Agnew (Nora Helmer) and Peter Christian Hansen (Terry Helmer) in the Guthrie Theater production of Rebecca Gilman’s DOLLHOUSE. Photo 2010 © Michal Daniel


This is how Nora Helmer, hero of Rebecca Gilman‘s Dollhouse (on the Guthrie’s McGuire proscenium, through July 11,, her modernization of the Henrik Ibsen classic A Doll’s House, succinctly describes what she most wants from this life.  Gilman cunningly sets her play in 2004, that not so distant era of wild from-the-hip bank lending, high tech IPOs, nannies for the perfect children and, of course, maxed out credit cards.

Nora secretly borrows 100K from Raj, a customer of Terry Helmer, her banker husband.  She thus sets up a nefarious (and beautifully developed) blackmail scheme and the working through of this story keeps the play fresh.  Gilman closely follows Ibsen’s structure and still manages to inject new life into the hoary old classic.  The conceit works.

Until the very end, that is, when the need to motivate Nora’s door-slamming departure requires Gilman to put her on a moral high-horse.  “I don’t need any of this,” Nora loftily states, referring to her lovingly appointed and precious (it’s a main reason for the bogus loan) condo.  This sudden attack of the goody-goodies posing feels, to this reviewer, unearned and out of character.  Gilman, one of the most intelligent writers around, must do this purposefully, though to what end is a mystery.  It’s off-putting, and keeps the twist ending (which of course won’t be revealed in this review) from really working as it might.

Still, this is relatively minor complaint about an otherwise grand show.  The Guthrie has assembled, it needs hardly to be said, a first-rate cast.  Sarah Agnew plays Nora beautifully, alternating between sexy and pathetic.  Her increasingly frenzied attempts to prevent her husband from discovering the loan are heart-breaking.  As Terry, Peter Christian Hansen solves the Ibsenian conundrum: he honors his character’s dorkiness and makes him smart and sympathetic at the same time.  Very savvy.  What a pleasure to see Norah Long playing a quiet, dreamy character like Kristine.  She gives the play a much-needed emotional anchor.  Good turns are also provided by Matt Guidry as Pete and George A. Keller as Marta.

But, ah, the star of this production, in the opinion of this reviewer, is Bhavesh Patel as Raj.  A complicated villain, driven in equal parts by a need for money and a need for love.  It could be trite but is in fact utterly convincing, a tribute both to Gilman’s intelligence and Patel’s restrained brilliance.  This is Patel’s Guthrie debut, the first show, one hopes, of many.

Director Wendy C. Goldberg and her team of designers: Alexander Dodge (sets), Anne Kennedy (costumes), Josh Epstein (lights) and Reid Rejsa (sound) create a Christmasy Chicago condo, easy on the eyes and perfectly suited to this play.

Right now the G boasts the three best shows in the city: Dollhouse in the McGuire, M. Butterfly in the Wurtele and Circle Mirror Transformation upstairs in the Dowling.  So: dig into your savings and go.  This is exciting.


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