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Sarah Agnew embraces 21st-century Nora in Guthrie’s ‘Dollhouse’

When playwright Rebecca Gilman took Isben’s “A Doll’s House” and moved it to the early 21st century, she may have changed a few details, but left the trap that the characters inhabit all the same.

When playwright Rebecca Gilman took Isben’s “A Doll’s House” and moved it to the early 21st century, she may have changed a few details, but she left the trap that the characters inhabit all the same. It’s a trap laid out clearly in the Guthrie Theater’s intriguing production of the 2005 work.

At its best, “Dollhouse” is a disturbing, but also funny show — often in the very same scene. None of the characters —­ especially Nora and Terry — come off as all that sympathetic. He’s controlling to the point of abuse, while Nora spends her time hiding her epic boredom through endless shopping trips and an obsession on the surface details of life.

Their less-than-happy existence is thrown for a loop when a college friend calls in a debt — one, that if revealed, will destroy both of their lives.

As the play deepens, we discover more and more the darkness that inhabits not just their lives, but also those of the lives of the seemingly successful folks around them.

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Gilman’s script sometimes gets mired in the machinations of the plot or in detailing the issues faced by the characters a bit too much on point. At its best, it drags the audience kicking and screaming into a pretty bleak world of overcharged credit cards, granite countertops and sad, empty lives.

I did mention that there are funny moments here, from Nora’s often oblivious interactions with the nanny to the discomfort felt by Kristine, another old college friend who has just recently re-entered her life. Meanwhile, a replica of Jennifer Beals’ “Flashdance” is howlingly funny and incredibly disturbing at the same time.

Credit needs to be given to Sarah Agnew, who embraces Nora in all of her contradictions. Faced with an unlikable character, Agnew keeps Nora from becoming a cartoon or parody. This is a real, breathing person who has laid her own trap in life and now is desperate to hold on to it. You can see the panic in her eyes even during the frenzy of “Maniac.”

The rest of the cast does equally solid work, from Peter Christian Hansen’s domineering Terry to Norah Long’s searching Kristine to Matt Guidry’s sad, lonely Pete. Director Wendy Goldberg brings all of these elements together — with the aid of set designer Alexander Dodge — ­ to make a world where everyone is lost in their dollhouse, afraid to break out into the world outside.

“Dollhouse” runs through July 11 at the Guthrie Theater¹s McGuire Proscenium Stage, 818 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis. Tickets are $24 to $60. For information, call 612-377-2224 or visit online.