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THEATER REVIEWS : All Things Not Being Equal in 'A Doll's House' : Cal State Fullerton production retains power of Ibsen's work but some of the acting is flawed and a telling scene is missing.


FULLERTON — In the century or so since "A Doll's House" scandalized Victorian audiences with its uncompromising call for equality of the sexes, society has changed so radically that the impact and context of Ibsen's play is very different from what it once was.

The status of women is still a crucial issue, to be sure. But it's hard to imagine the bombshell that went off all over Scandinavia and Germany when the play was introduced in 1879. The heroine's "declaration of independence" apparently provoked such outrage in polite society, according to Ibsen scholar and translator William Archer, that discussion of the play "had to be formally barred at social gatherings."

Today nobody is likely to feel anything but admiration and pity for Nora, who makes the wrenching choice to leave her husband and children in a desperate bid to become "a real person," as she puts it. Her repudiation of what she has come to realize is a bankrupt marriage--precisely because it is not a partnership of equals--still retains its shattering power. But we understand her. We appreciate both her need for self-fulfillment and her abhorrence at the stultifying sham of her life.

If contemporary playgoers have censorious feelings for anyone in the play, it is bound to be Nora's pompous, obtuse and egotistical husband, Torvald. His ingrained belief in male superiority seems as repellent as his preachy condescension, his craven urge to conform at all costs and, even worse, his inability to love Nora except on the most self-centered terms.

All of this is made evident by the college production of "A Doll's House" now at Cal State Fullerton's Arena Theatre, despite the too-obvious youth and inexperience of an otherwise creditable cast of undergraduate actors. While the two leads have a tendency to emote, they both manage to bring off their roles without much fuss. And the supporting players lend unexpected weight.

Energetic innocence is Jeani Finnerty's dominant note as Nora, but she does manage to touch a deeper nerve in the climactic third act. Jim Gray, who has earned a shot at the nationally prestigious Irene Ryan Award for his role in the musical "All That He Was" at CSUF, seems somewhat miscast as Torvald. In compensation, perhaps, he gives a studied performance that could use greater color.

Kelly Shea and Jeremy Johnson take charge of their respective roles as Mrs. Linde and Krogstad. Shea, who is particularly well cast, demonstrates apt control. Whenever her character is at stage center, the tone of the production acquires a certain maturity and the pace feels right. Johnson, too, comes off well; his Krogstad has a jagged edge of restrained intensity. And in a nice bit of non-traditional casting, Andrew Shoffner, who is black, gives a dryly ironic performance as Dr. Rank.

The best thing about James R. Taulli's direction is that it never becomes static. You always get the feeling he knows where the play is going and where it should end up. He has cut a small scene, however, which shows Nora with her three young children. In this production, they are no more than an offstage rumor. The omission, while understandable for reasons of casting, nonetheless diminishes the poignancy of Nora's predicament.

* "A Doll's House," Arena Theatre at Cal State Fullerton, 800 N. State College, Fullerton. Thursday-Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m. $4-$6. (714) 773-3371. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes. Jim Gray: Torvald Helmer Jeani Finnerty: Nora Helmer Kelly Shea: Kristine Linde Jeremy Johnson: Nils Krogstad Andrew Soffner: Dr. Rank Kirsten Vangsness: Anne-Marie Laura Mezzacappa: Helene

A Cal State Fullerton production of the play by Henrik Ibsen, translated by Christopher Hampton, directed by James R. Taulli. Scenic design by Todd Muffatti. Lighting design by Esther Usaraga. Costume design and makeup by Karen Wight. Production manager: John R. Fisher.

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