It was the door-slam heard around the world,” says Sarah Agnew. “It was considered the first feminist story.” A midday drizzle spatters the windows of the Guthrie Theater’s fifth-floor café as Agnew elaborates on A Doll’s House, the Henrik Ibsen play about a woman straining to leave an oppressive marriage. Agnew plays the lead in Dollhouse, a modern-day adaptation of the story that opened May 28 at the Guthrie, and her luminous blue eyes widen as she marvels at Ibsen’s intrepid taboo-tackling in 1879. “Marriage, prior to that, was so private,” she says. “Nobody touched it.”
Agnew was equally drawn to the new take, by Chicago playwright Rebecca Gilman. Set in an upscale Chicago neighborhood in the midst of today’s recession, Dollhouse shifts the focus from marriage to materialism, with Nora, the lead character, reckoning with the acquisitiveness and shady business deals that have shaped her lifestyle. Agnew says the story’s moral may seem obvious—“People were living beyond their means, and things crashed”—but the consequences defy easy definitions of victimhood. “For Nora, it’s a domestic crisis,” she says. “It’s her world that crashes.”
Such layered work is no stretch for Agnew, a Duluth native who came to audiences’ attention in the late 1990s as a risk-taking mainstay with Theatre de la Jeune Lune. She subsequently became a Guthrie regular before debuting, in 2008, a virtuosic performance at the Jungle Theater of The Syringa Tree, a one-woman, multi-character tale of growing up in South Africa under apartheid. The show proved so popular that the Jungle revived it the very next year.
Unlike her Dollhouse character, however, Agnew doesn’t take her success for granted—no actor can, she says. “You can have a year that’s full of work, and the next year you have to really change the way you operate,” she says, bracing to step into the rain. “Sometimes you trick yourself into believing that you can maintain a certain lifestyle.”
5 THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT SARAH
1. She bussed to Chicago from Madison, Wisconsin, to take comedy classes at Second City.
2. Attempting to make it in television, she was rejected by MADtv for appearing too young.
3. Her sole Broadway role was Ophelia in Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s Hamlet.
4. Her first Twin Cities acting gigs were with Dudley Riggs’s Brave New Workshop.
5. She once won a Hallo-ween costume contest as a beheaded Statue of Liberty.