Ibsen's 'A Doll's House' at the Arden: Great theater, straight up,with much to say in 2018

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Katharine Powell as Nora and Cody Nickell as Torvald in “A Doll’s House,” through Feb. 25 at Arden Theatre Company.

Whether you are suffering from hashtag fatigue or waving an “Oprah 2020” banner, the Arden’s production of Ibsen’s iconic feminist play A Doll’s House has something for you. That something is great theater.

When Henrik Ibsen was asked about women’s property rights (which were nonexistent in 19th-century Norway), he said:  “To consult men in such a matter is like asking wolves if they desire better protection for the sheep.”

The wolves, whistling, have been out in force, but so have the “Noras,” as Ibsen’s rival August Strindberg scornfully called strong-minded, independent women.

Nora the central character in A Doll’s House, discovers that marriage is a stifling patriarchal institution and that she needs to escape from it to become an adult human being rather than remain a doll. The play reveals an interesting dual societal problem: Just as women have been historically burdened by powerlessness, men have been burdened by the requirement for heroism. If Nora is profoundly disappointed by her husband’s failure to perform the “miracle” she has been waiting for, Torvald is just as profoundly shaken by the collapse of every entitlement he has believed in unquestioningly. That the play is still so relevant, considering it was written in 1879, is both shocking and tragic.

The Arden’s reconfigured venue presents the play in the round, saying in effect to the mostly married audience: nowhere to hide. Although the show gets off to a slow start, it picks up speed and power as the plot develops and the characters reveal human depths under their social surfaces.

Lovely Katharine Powell gives us a saucy, flirty, annoying Nora who then becomes — believably — an interesting, disillusioned woman. As her sexy husband Torvald, Cody Nickell falls apart beautifully, devastated in ways he had never imagined in his pompous male security.

What distinguishes this production from so many others is that the minor characters are given vivid life by two major actors. Scott Greer is moving and elegant as the thwarted Dr. Rank, and Akeem Davis is an impassioned, surprisingly sympathetic Krogstad. Nora’s old school friend Kristine Linde is effectively played as steady and decent by Becky Chong (who ought to demand a new costume!).

Listen for the sound effect that ends the play; George Bernard Shaw called it “the door slam heard round the world,” and contemporary developments have proved him right. Terrence J. Nolen’s strong, forthright direction gives us Ibsen, the granddaddy of realism, straight up: no frills, no bizarre contemporizing, revealing how good the play is.

Theater

A Doll's House

    • Through Feb. 25 at Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd St. Tickets $15-$52. Information: 215 922-1122, ardentheatre.org.