Arts & Culture

Harlequin’s adaptation of ‘A Doll’s House’ enhances its relevance for modern era

Russ Holm as Dr. Rank and Jenny Vaughn Hall as Nora in Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” opening this weekend at Olympia’s State Theater.
Russ Holm as Dr. Rank and Jenny Vaughn Hall as Nora in Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” opening this weekend at Olympia’s State Theater. Courtesy of Harlequin Productions

Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” — about young wife Nora Helmer’s realization that her marriage traps her in the role of decoration or doll — is at least as relevant today as when it premiered 140 years ago.

That’s the premise of Harlequin Productions’ adaptation of the Ibsen classic, in its opening weekend at the State Theater.

“This is the year for ‘A Doll’s House,’ ” artistic director Aaron Lamb, who adapted and directs the production, said in a press release for the show. “I think we can really see ourselves in this play right now.”

He’s far from the only one who recognizes the contemporary resonance of Ibsen’s oft-quoted belief that “A woman cannot be herself in modern society.” Seattle Repertory Theatre just wrapped up a production of “A Doll’s House 2,” a comic sequel by Lucas Hnath that opened on Broadway in 2017, and in June, the Seattle experimental company Filament is staging an original piece called “How to Escape a Doll’s House.”

In his adaptation for Harlequin, Lamb altered the script only very slightly (updating monetary amounts, for example), but he moved the story of Nora (Jenny Vaughn Hall) and her husband, Torvald (Matt Shimkus), to a more-or-less contemporary setting where men wear slightly altered modern clothing and women wear slightly altered versions of Victorian garb.

“The idea is that since Ibsen wrote the play 140 years ago, the men have progressed 145 years and the women have progressed maybe 20,” he told The Olympian.

That’s something that much of society might just now be ready to see, he said. “We see something different in Nora’s decision to leave in a post-#metoo world than we would have seen before, and it’s what we should have seen before.”

“There’s an honesty in the U.S. now about the things that women have endured, and we’re free to be vocal about it in a way that we never have before,” Hall of Seattle told The Olympian.

She finds it easy to relate to Nora, acknowledging that the character is trapped not just in her marriage but by what Ibsen called “an exclusively masculine society.”

“This has been the plight always,” said Hall, who starred with Shimkus in Harlequin’s 2015 “Time Stands Still.” “It was the plight when Ibsen wrote it, and it’s the plight now.

“I’ve spent the past decade of my life figuring out all the ways that I’ve been locked into the patriarchy and I hadn’t even noticed.”

Lamb and company hope to get more people to notice the persistence of this reality and to surprise audiences yet again with a play that shocked audiences when it premiered and has continued to surprise them ever since.

“You may think you know ‘A Doll’s House’ inside out,” New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote of a 1997 production imported from London. “This production is guaranteed to prove you wrong.”

Lamb and company intend to spark the same reaction.

‘A Doll’s House’

  • What: Harlequin Productions presents a 21st-century take on Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 classic about a woman who comes to realize she’s trapped by her marriage.
  • When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday plus May 8-11, 16-18 and 23-25 and 2 p.m. Sunday plus May 12 and 19
  • Where: State Theater, 202 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia
  • Tickets: $35, $32 for seniors and military, $20 for those 25 and younger and students
  • More information: 360-786-0151,
  • Watch: Check out the cast talking about the contemporary significance of the 140-year-old play on YouTube.