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Rocking the Victorian World

Ibsen's “A Doll's House” carries a timely message.

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Henley Street Theatre Company presents Henrik Ibsen's “A Doll's House” as its offering for the Minds Wide Open Celebration of Women in the Arts. It's an odd choice at first glance — the play was written more than 130 years ago by a man who claimed to be a realist rather than a feminist — but the play bears as relevant a message for contemporary society as it did for our Victorian ancestors.

“When James [Ricks, Henley Street's artistic director] and I were looking at plays for the festival, we really felt that this piece embodied the women's ‘Minds Wide Open' theme because it was the first feminist piece of theater,” says Henley Street's managing director, Jacquie O'Connor. “It literally rocked the Victorian world. It was scandalous. It certainly sparked the beginning of the feminist movement whether [Ibsen] wanted it to or not.”

It was also among the first plays written in standard dialect as opposed to poetic verse, making Ibsen the model for realist theater. The idea of equal rights for women was 100 years old by the time Ibsen penned “A Doll's House.” Discussions of women's rights to own property and vote began in America and France during their respective revolutions. But women were beginning to gain voting rights in some European countries during the late 1800s, according to Jone Johnson Lewis, a women's history researcher and writer for About.com.

Feminist or not, the concept of a woman leaving her husband and children in pursuit of finding herself was completely unacceptable in society of the time. The main character, Nora, experiences an awakening as she becomes disillusioned with her marriage and realizes she's been raised to be little more than an object. In the first part of the play she represents the traditional woman's role of wife and mother with little to do other than shop and direct household staff and entertain her husband when he's home. She evolves through the play and becomes strong enough to leave her husband, slamming the door behind her as if to say, “This is final and you'd better know, I am not coming back to this same life.”

Anna Johnson makes her Henley Street directing debut with “A Doll's House,” which opens May 6. She's also the first woman to direct a play for the three-year-old company. Johnson says she thinks the play is symbolically relevant to women today because women still struggle with a perceived feminine ideal versus the need for self-actualization or working out of economic necessity.

“As a woman I know that even though certain laws have changed in society regarding women and their rights,” Johnson says, “if you look at where society is today, especially in the conservative arena, many of the rules which are no longer law are still psychological. That sort of family values, women's place is in the home raising children and tending to the house mentality … it makes me reflect on the expectations in our society and how we confront that. As a mother myself, feeling guilty about having my daughter in aftercare so I can work, a lot of those questions come up.”

Feminist, realist and relevant, “A Doll's House” seems a more than worthy component of a celebration of women in the arts. S

Henley Street Theatre Company's “A Doll's House” runs May 6-29 at Pine Camp Community Center, 4901 Old Brook Road. Tickets $10-$20. For information call 340-0115 or visit henleystreettheatre.org. For more on Virginia's Minds Wide Open celebration of women in the arts, go to vamindswideopen.org.

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