CHINA DOLL by Marjorie Chan, directed by Kelly Thornton, with Chan, Jo Chim, Keira Loughran and John Ng. Presented by Nightwood at the Tarragon Extra Space (30 Bridgman). Previews begin Tuesday (February 17), opens February 19 and runs to March 14, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2:30 pm. $16-$32. 416-531-1827. Rating: NNNNN
Sometimes a few painful steps off the beaten path can lead to the obliteration of centuries of hidebound tradition. Or, in the case of Su-Ling, the central figure in Marjorie Chan's China Doll, foot-bound tradition.
Set in Shanghai early in the 20th century, Chan's play takes us into the world of a rebellious young woman. She's not happy following the pattern of the meek female whose marriageability and therefore worth are defined by how tightly and exquisitely her feet are bound.
Raised by her traditional grandmother, Su-Ling - through a merchant whose interest in her has a sexual subtext - comes across a Mandarin translation of Ibsen's A Doll's House, in which the submissive Nora discovers that she's led a life of metaphoric imprisonment as wife and mother. She leaves, slamming the door behind her.
Inspired by the story, which actually circulated around Shanghai teahouses, Su-Ling follows a similar course, ignoring the advice of both her grandmother and a servant to the family into which Su-Ling is to wed.
"I was at first unsure where it sat for me as an Asian woman," offers Keira Loughran, cast as the servant Ming in the Nightwood Theatre premiere, "especially that it might be seen as a fetishizing of Chinese culture.
"But as Marjorie worked on the play, its world has become a strongly human one that speaks for itself, without judgment."
Loughran's first exposure to the script was in last spring's Groundswell Festival, when she worked as dramaturgical intern with Nightwood artistic director Kelly Thornton.
"I was secretly planning to audition her for a part in the show when we produced it," laughs director Thornton.
"Over the course of developing the piece, which began life as a CBC Radio drama, we've worked on removing Su-Ling's sense of being a victim of society," she continues.
"We finally cracked the problem by going back to Ibsen and looking at his themes, like secrecy. Initially, Su-Ling was naive, walking freely and happily around Shanghai, learning to read. Now she has a double life, with the merchant at the core of her secret and the grandmother the source of her tradition."
As Loughran points out, the piece is about how people learn to survive, either as master or servant.
"Ming does it by playing within the system, not being ambitious, so that she can maintain her strength of character and her relationships," she notes. In the past few months, the triple-threat theatre artist directed Serious and workshopped the co-written Black Widow at B.A.N.G. In the spring she's off to perform in her first Stratford season.
"Ming has a sense of responsibility to society, of collective thinking, that's very Chinese, and it's a point that I'm glad is in the play."
Foot-binding sits symbolically at the centre of the work.
"It was banned in 1905, but the tradition had been in place for centuries. Girls bound at five or six couldn't walk or play but could only sit around and embroider, preparing them for married life.
"But the tradition also speaks to the Confucian woman, who's taught that with patience you can endure pain. The smaller the foot - therefore the tighter the binding - the more endurance you clearly must have."
Thornton was first attracted to the script in part because it followed Nightwood's mandate of giving voice to women of different cultures.
"China Doll isn't a new-immigrant Canadian story, but rather one that takes us into the epicentre of a change, a rupture in society, that begins with one woman's steps out of that society.
"I like big, epic stories like this. I gravitate to challenging plays, even seemingly impossible scripts," she laughs again.
"If they didn't get staged, people might as well stay home and watch TV."