AT SHAKING THE TREE THEATRE, Samantha Van Der Merwe's immersive set design is often worth the price of admission alone, and her latest production, which adapts the Henrik Ibsen classic A Doll's House, is no exception. The tiny warehouse space is divided into neat domestic quadrants, each with its own color scheme and lighting, separated by translucent screening—it's like looking into the cutaway rooms of an overgrown dollhouse, which is exactly the point. Throughout the performance, characters can be glimpsed through the set's walls carrying out domestic activities (reading, sewing), while the main action takes place in the set's central room. No one really exits the stage, and the effect is one of sustained continuity, lending fresh realism to Ibsen's familiar-to-the-point-of-overproduced play.
About that play: If you know anything about A Doll's House, you probably know that the iconic role of its protagonist, Nora Helmer, is kind of thankless—she's a repressed Victorian heroine who's "cheerful," but not happy, confined to a domestic life poorly suited to her boisterous personality and impulsive decisions. I think Ibsen at least nominally understood that Nora's infantile behavior comes from being infantilized, but for a lazy contemporary viewer, it's easy to be like, "Why is this lady such a mess?"
Nora's growing awareness of how little autonomy she has is actually what gives A Doll's House its heartbreaking tension, but it has to be detectable. Luckily, this Nora is the always-reliable Nikki Weaver, who brings complexity and playfulness to a role that demands both. The acting is uniformly strong: Jacob Coleman makes Nora's onerous mansplaining husband less a villain than an endearing but deeply clueless Nice Guy™. And the show is almost stolen by supporting players Jamie Rea, as Nora's old friend, and Matthew Kerrigan, who often carries comedic roles, going convincingly dark as the desperate, scheming Nils Krogstad (I see Kerrigan in plays all the time; I almost didn't realize it was him).
But I kept returning to the container for all of this. Everything about it seemed so carefully chosen and made, from the props to the lighting to the cut of the costumes, which have a visible weight, and give each character their own color palette. Van Der Merwe's dollhouse set—an entire universe contained in small, carefully appointed rooms—is so perfectly built, it makes the play's tense trajectory that much more jarring, and when you're producing a play as well known as Ibsen's, that's exactly what's needed.
Shaking the Tree Theatre, 823 SE Grant, Thurs-Sun 7:30 pm, through May 7, $25, shaking-the-tree.com