The video projection of a Mattel Barbie Dreamhouse commercial from the 1960s opens Doll at The Magnetic Theatre. Created by Asheville-based playwright Brenda Lunsford Lilly, the production is a sly, 1960s-era homage to Henrik Ibsen’s notable play, A Doll’s House. The show remains onstage through Saturday, May 5.
Those unfamiliar with Ibsen’s work need not be concerned. Lilly has carved her own unique tale from the skeletal structure of the source material about a kept woman shattering her world and defying male dominance. If anything, Lilly bridges a gap between the modern #MeToo movement and the repressive 19th century of Ibsen, showing a time when sexism and misogyny were still openly acceptable.
Andrew Gall‘s direction pinpoints the outward style of a classic TV show (think “Leave It To Beaver” or “I Love Lucy”), but without the homilies and hi-jinks. This is far darker territory, as viewed through a modern prism. Gall is aided by fine costuming by Victoria Smith — everything looks perfectly period.
Scenic designer Terry Martin‘s set looks like that Barbie Dreamhouse, but is painted an intriguing shade of blue. Jason Williams, who is one of the local theater’s most valued designers, accents the set with his lighting — the color of the dreamhouse alters when hit by different colored lights.
Mary Katherine O’Donnell is at once luminous and weary as Nora, the doll in question. Her life is ordered and controlled by her businessman husband, David. Maximilian Koger plays the role of David with a sly smile that is, at first glance, charming, but is actually fueled by condescension and sexism. He has Nora medicated and possesses her in a doll house of his design. He thinks that her access to easy shopping and cocktail parties is enough of a life for her to ever want.
The play is set during the Christmas season of 1962, between the idealism of the 1950s and the revolution of the late ’60s. David has gotten a promotion, and is moving up the ladder, stepping on and over those in his way. His only confidant is his close friend Tommy (played by Daniel Henry), who may not be as close as David thinks. Tommy harbors a few dark secrets, fueled by his constant hard drinking.
Other secrets come out with the arrival of Hannah Williams-Beaver as Emily, an old friend of Nora’s seeking employment after being widowed. Emily hopes to leverage her renewed usefulness in Nora’s life for a position at the bank David is now in charge of. To do so, she will replace a man named Neil Crosier, whose firing sets up a potential blackmail of Nora. Crosier holds a secret that could unravel her marriage. Scott Volshinin brings an air of desperate villainy to the role of Crosier.
Maya Williamson is wonderful in her small, but essential, role as the maid who sees and knows all within the home. Her expressions provide commentary throughout. As Nora and David’s young daughter Natalie, Ivy Rose Volshinin is being raised more by the maid than the sedated Nora.
Originally produced at Western Carolina University, where Lilly is a professor, the show is an exhilarating exercise in reinvention of classic theater for more contemporary audiences. Lilly updates Ibsen, while infusing the work with her own ideas and passions.
WHERE: The Magnetic Theatre, 375 Depot St., themagnetictheatre.org
WHEN: Though Saturday, May 5. Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. $16