An Update Feels Dated

Last year, director Israel Hicks commissioned Charles F. (OyamO) Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan, to write a play based on Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. Hicks wanted it set in a contemporary milieu, with Torvald transformed into the Nigerian ambassador to the United Nations. OmayO obliged. The result, A Selfish Sacrifice, is now playing at the Denver Center.

As they settle into their elegant New York apartment with their three children, Akinyele Bobagunwa -- Aki -- and his wife, Akumma Obinna (Aku), luxuriate in their newfound status and financial security. But Akumma has a secret. Many years earlier, when her husband was suffering from a life-threatening illness that required treatment in England, she borrowed money from a shady lawyer, Obadele Rhinehart, in order to save Aki's life. Worse, she forged her father's signature on the note. And worse still -- though she will only realize this later in the play -- the borrowed money was tainted by association with the loathed dictatorship of Sanni Abacha. If this secret is discovered, both she and Aki will be disgraced.

It's been years since I last read or viewed A Doll's House, and I didn't realize as I watched A Selfish Sacrifice how closely the plot hews to that of Ibsen's nineteenth-century proto-feminist drama, which it follows almost scene for scene. Perhaps if I'd understood that, I'd have seen and evaluated the play differently, admiring the dexterity with which OyamO translated the action into a contemporary idiom. Instead, I found the plot stilted and unbelievable and the characters one-dimensional.

The protagonists' nationality does add interest and vitality to the work. The best moments occur early on, as we watch the sheltered and naive Aku (Kim Staunton) attempting to find her footing in an entirely new culture -- struggling to understand a delivery boy's slang, laughing with her friend Ijeudo about the eccentricities of American blacks, treating her maid as if they were affectionate co-conspirators rather than employer and employee. The scene in which Aku welcomes the down-on-her-luck Ijeudo to her home communicates a tradition of open-hearted hospitality that's alien to contemporary America and utterly disarming. I'd love to have seen OyamO pursue this concept of cultural dislocation further. It offers rich possibilities for misunderstanding, entanglement, revelation -- in short, drama. But he chose simply to rewrite instead of reimagine Ibsen's play and, by the halfway point, the Nigerian dimension seems an extraneous rather than integral element.

Nineteenth-century audiences were more accustomed than we are to melodramatic plot twists and credulity-stretching coincidences, as well as to long, repetitive, emotion-soaked speeches. I accept these conventions when I'm watching Ibsen, but when a drama is set in contemporary New York, I come to it with different expectations. As I watched Sacrifice, my mind came up with questions for almost every turn of the plot. Would the home mailbox of a U.N. ambassador really be locked away from his wife? Why was Aku thinking of asking the dying and devoted Dr. Samuel Armstrong for money when it was clear that paying off her debt wouldn't prevent further blackmail? At one point, contemplating suicide, Aku steals Dr. Armstrong's pain medication. Why isn't he in desperate pain a few hours later? Has he prescribed himself a new dose? And why doesn't he ask Aku about the pills? Isn't he at all worried about her mental stability? When Ijeudo declares her love to the slimy Rhineheart, is she sincere or just trying to save Aku? And is it remotely credible that all it takes is the love of a good woman to turn Rhineheart into a pussycat? What about the explosive revelation that Aku's oldest son isn't Aki's? Shouldn't that have some ramifications somewhere along the line?

The characterizations don't convince, either. Aki, played by the usually admirable Terrence Riggins, is written as such a smug dunce that you can't take him seriously. Veralyn Jones's warmth and charm as Ijeudo don't mitigate the fact that once the character has dissolved into tears, she never seems to stop crying. Kim Staunton is at her vivid best in the lighthearted early scenes; after these, Aku, too, sounds basically one anguished note. Harvy Blanks and Charles Weldon do their best with Armstrong and Rhineheart, respectively, and Gwen Harris brings a lot of humor to the small role of Ammajean. But dedicated acting isn't enough when you don't believe what you're seeing.