When Denver Center Theater Company director Israel Hicks commissioned Charles F. (OyamO) Gordon to write an adaptation of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” he gave only one instruction — that the protagonists be the Nigerian ambassador to the United Nations and his wife. The prescience of such a vision is now clear: With the anachronisms in the original cleverly and seamlessly updated, the play is free to reach its full emotional potential with contemporary audiences.
OyamO accomplishes this by layering the intricacies of a particular African culture — its stark contrasts between Muslims, Christians and Animists, and between agrarian and industrial economies — on top of Ibsen’s rock-solid foundation. He retains about 80% of the master’s dialogue, changing details of the story only where necessary for continuity’s sake or dramatic effect on modern sensibilities.
In an elegant drawing room furnished with antiques and oriental carpeting, beneath a massive crystal chandelier and classical arches festooned with seasonal decorations, Aku (Kim Staunton), the ambassador’s wife, is still adjusting to the materialistic realities of American life. In the country only six weeks, she is fully captivated by the selection from which she is able to choose Christmas presents for her husband and three children. And like her predecessor Nora in Ibsen’s original, Aku’s story begins with indulgences in forbidden macaroons and arguments with her husband over expenses.
Adorned in the resplendent colors and luxuriant textures of her homeland, Staunton’s Aku cuts a striking figure. At the outset she’s aglow with cheeriness at her prospects and is uniquely captivating, punctuating her conversation with stylized gestures rooted in African movement. Later, after the intermission’s symbolic passage of two days, Staunton, with subtle shading, turns Aku inward, preparing us for her frantic, diversionary dance and final excruciating break with the past.
As her husband, Akim, Terrence Riggins brims with magisterial confidence, whether issuing decisive orders for his embassy and his household, characterizing his own virtuousness or declaring his desire for his wife. In a delicious moment bathed in a red spotlight, all these elements come together for him as he dances with Aku at the ball. Afterwards, when his marriage has unraveled, he remains dignified despite his loss.
Those serving as the catalysts for Akim and Aku’s fateful drama are caught up by the same forces, though with an altogether different resolution. Aku’s long-lost girlhood friend Ijeudo, who comes to New York and Aku’s home looking for work, gets more than she bargained for when her former lover, now Akim’s embassy associate Obadele Rhineheart, shows up trying to save his job and salvage his reputation.
Veralyn Jones brings a mesmerizing persuasiveness to Ijeudo. She is capable of moralizing over Aku’s behavior surrounding the infamous loan, and then turning around and humbly begging Rhineheart for forgiveness for cutting off their earlier relationship after she married a rich elderly gent in order to save her family.
Shifty and insinuating, Charles Weldon builds us a Rhineheart who justifies Akim’s unflattering accusations, before surprising us, hat in hand, with an honest and contrite confession to Ijeudo of his motives and misdeeds.
In a stunning update of the play’s love scene between these two wounded survivors — who share an equality in their relationship of which Aku can only dream — OyamO artfully nurtures their growing honesty and affection, which culminates in a stunning declaration of love and a memorable kiss.
Further polishing the universality of the play, Ibsen sets the ultimate boundary with the looming health issues of a close friend and confidant of the protagonists. In OyamO’s version, Harvey Blanks is Dr. Samuel Armstrong, the everyday visitor to Akim and Aku’s home. Walking with a limp and exhibiting his strength as a storyteller, Blanks’ Armstrong counsels, cajoles and endears himself to the couple, before leaving his final black-marked calling card.
The Nigerian flavor of this adaptation creates a number of surprising opportunities. Staunton’s, Riggins’ and Jones’ African accents achieve a lyricism in the dialogue not present in the original, and the openness of DCTC’s in-the-round Space Theater frees up the blocking to find an idiom more accessible than the 19th-century Norwegian prototype. Director also Israel Hicks takes advantage of the proximity of the surrounding audience, providing a number of telling, intimate moments for Aku, within which she reveals her innermost workings in silence, providing room for the germ of her evolution.
Though much has been gained in women’s rights in the 125 years since that “door slam heard ’round the world,” much remains to be done. With this adaptation, the courage of one woman once again gives hope to many.