Rebeck creates ‘DollHouse’ with renovations

Ibsen adaptation gets a local run

Theresa Rebeck has updated “A Doll’s House’’ to “DollHouse,’’ and moved the drama from 19th-century Norway to contemporary Connecticut. Theresa Rebeck has updated “A Doll’s House’’ to “DollHouse,’’ and moved the drama from 19th-century Norway to contemporary Connecticut. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times/File 2007)
By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / February 25, 2011

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Theresa Rebeck says she isn’t surprised that she’d be asked to update one of Henrik Ibsen’s plays examining gender and power. Left to her own devices, she’d go with “Hedda Gabler.’’

“Because Hedda I understand,’’ she says. “You know — woman with a gun!’’

A decade ago, though, Hartford Stage asked Rebeck to take on Ibsen’s 1879 “A Doll’s House.’’ It’s the story of Nora, a traditional, submissive “good wife’’ who finally faces the limits of her role, its cost to her identity. She’s not really Rebeck’s kind of gal.

“Yeah, I don’t like her,’’ Rebeck says with a laugh. “I might like her more, I need to go spend more time with her. But I’ve never been that kind of person, mostly because it never occurred to me to engage in that kind of marriage.’’

For her adaptation “DollHouse,’’ Rebeck moved the drama from 19th-century Norway to contemporary Connecticut and made Nora a financier’s stylish wife. Sarah Newhouse stars as Nora in the New Repertory Theatre production of “DollHouse,’’ which runs Sunday through March 20 in the Charles Mosesian Theater at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown.

Rebeck’s Nora is less shaped by society’s expectations than by her own needs.

“Part of the reason that particular story is revealing itself over time to be universal is that that model of marriage seems to be something that stays with us over time and space, where the man is the big strong guy and the woman is the little woman who stays at home and does what she’s told,’’ Rebeck says.

“At the time that was a cultural definition of marriage. As that definition has changed, more and more people cling to it, I think for different reasons. So when I started working on [the play] 10 years ago, it was for me more a question of why would a contemporary woman find herself in that marriage?’’ she says. “Why are we clinging to this version of marriage, when we don’t have to?’’

Rebeck lived in Cambridge for eight years while studying at Brandeis, and she says Boston is her artistic home, although she now lives in New York. She cites a Huntington Theatre Company production of her “Bad Dates’’ as a turning point, and recent productions of “Mauritius’’ at the Huntington and “The Understudy’’ at Lyric Stage Company were well received.

The 2001 Hartford production of “DollHouse’’ was harshly reviewed — Rebeck won’t talk about that — and the play has not received a full staging since. A year ago, New Rep artistic director Kate Warner and artistic associate Bridget Kathleen O’Leary were planning the 2010-11 season around a theme of transformation. They came across “DollHouse’’ in a listing of available plays, and O’Leary ordered a copy to read.

“I was surprised when we found the reviews that the play was 10 years old, because it didn’t feel dated to me at all,’’ says O’Leary, who directs the production. “And honestly the reviews I read did not reflect the experience I had when I read the play. So . . . I don’t know that it bothered us at all.’’

Nora’s husband, Torvald in Ibsen, is Evan in Rebeck’s play. The action takes place three years after he has had a heart attack and lost his job at a major financial institution, threatening them with the loss of their home and their comfortable lifestyle. Nora’s crime, forgery in Ibsen, is embezzlement here. She stole the money to keep her family together, but the secret comes back to haunt her.

“I think if you look at what was going on three years ago in our country, that feels about right,’’ O’Leary says with a laugh. “It feels like the reality of what people were going through then. I also think it would be very hard for us to tell a story of the battle of the sexes. I don’t think that’s interesting anymore, and that’s not what this play is about.’’

One who did have her doubts initially was Newhouse, making her New Rep debut as Nora opposite Will Lyman as Evan. When offered Nora, she snapped it up. And yet. . .

“I didn’t know how I felt about it when I first read it. I love the original. But I took the role right away because I knew it would be a huge challenge for me,’’ Newhouse says. “My reservations were: Why should I care about these people? They’re privileged; what about them relates to me and my life and the people coming to see this?’’

Then she began to understand Rebeck’s take on Ibsen’s story.

“There are women who still have this kind of relationship, and what kind of toll it takes, what they sacrifice, and how they get out of it, if they do,’’ Newhouse says. “That’s what’s hooking me in, and I think will hook in a modern audience too, especially women. It will be really interesting to see how they react to it.’’

Joel Brown can be reached at


Presented by New Repertory Theatre

At: Charles Mosesian Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, Sunday through March 20. Tickets: $28-$58. 617-923-8487,