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Ibsen's 'Doll's House' Shines in Top-Notch TV Version

IF there really is as virulent a backlash against the women's movement as many feminists believe just now, a first-class production of Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House" is definitely in order.

"Masterpiece Theatre" obliges us with a winner this Sunday night (PBS, 9 p.m., check local listings), starring Juliet Stevenson as the rebellious doll-wife, Nora Helmer.

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Ibsen first outraged the general public with his expose of male domination and female revolt in 1879. But the play became perhaps the most famous of the 19th century, and, as "Masterpiece" host Alistair Cooke points out, it is the most revived. The precision with which Ibsen lays bare the hearts of his few characters and demonstrates the methods by which one human being might gain and hold control over another still makes us squirm in our seats. Things could be very bad for women, and Ibsen told everybod y so.

Ms. Stevenson (who starred in the film "Truly, Madly, Deeply") makes a stunning Nora. She moves from giddy fear to childish coquettishness to womanly sensitivity to strong, clear understanding with a hundred shades of meaning at each point. She is so irritating as her husband's little pet - self-absorbed without being self-aware - that you want to shake sense into her. But as Stevenson moves Nora through desperation all the way to realization of Torvald's true nature, she makes every instant on screen a revelation. The surprise with which she explores the new vista just opened to her is jolting.

She is joined by a top-notch cast. Trevor Eve gives Torvald a cool, intellectual self-deception. He makes Torvald charming without lending him warmth. He is intelligent without being discerning. Willful, selfish, mean-spirited, and arrogant, this Torvald nevertheless breaks at the thought of his wife's departure. He is strangely pathetic, even sympathetic in his loss.

Patrick Malahide as Dr. Rank creates a whole character we feel we've known forever.

Geraldine James makes Christina a strong, honest woman perfectly contrasted to Nora's weak girlishness. When Ms. James's Christina finds her life in the service of others, we can't help but see the difference between her honorable, freely chosen generosity and the door-mat compliance of Nora. David Calder as Nils Krogstad turns quiet desperation into a significant emotion.

Plays, especially important ones, don't usually translate well to video or film. We need the actor's presence, the full-stage view, and even the distance afforded us in the theater, since that is what plays are designed for.

But this production of "Doll's House" fits rather neatly inside the tube. In fact, there's something to be said for the boxed intimacy the video close-up creates between Nora and the men in her life. Nora lives a doll's existence, utterly dependent on Torvald. He calls her his little "skylark" or "squirrel," alternately adoring and scolding her for her extravagance or foolishness or fragility. His perpetual undermining of her intelligence and self-esteem with these "endearments" traps her, and the televi sion creates a little cage to keep her in - as well as himself.

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Beleaguered by her blackmailer, the anguished and bitter Krogstad, Nora is literally forced up against the wall - or into a corner - by the camera, underscoring her mental confinement.

The camera helps create that stifling atmosphere, the fragile environment that seems too small for Nora's rustling gowns and bustling games with her children. Every corner she sulks in seems to snare her, every tiny chair she perches on suggests her discomfort.

One can't help but miss the actors' live presence. But most of us would never have the opportunity to see performances of this quality in our local theaters anyway. So while the power of the play does suffer a little on the tube, we do still feel the magnitude of Nora's decision at the end, as the story spirals into a (still) troubling conclusion.

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