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). Runs to March 14, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday and Sunday 2:30 pm. $16-$32. 416-531-1827. Rating: NNN
China Doll has admirable legs , but it takes a number of its steps unsteadily. Set in Shanghai during the first two decades of the last century, Marjorie Chan 's strong premise focuses on a young Chinese woman inspired by Ibsen's A Doll's House - the play actually was avidly read by women in the tea houses - to realize that her future holds other possibilities than following patriarchal custom.
The image for her bondage and later freedom is the tradition of female foot binding, which enforced the idea that the smaller and daintier the foot, the more marriageable the woman. Su-Ling (Chan) endures both the binding and the commands of her grandmother Poa-Poa ( Jo Chim ) until a merchant ( John Ng ) enlarges her world by secretly teaching her to read and exposing her to some of the politics of the world outside her ken.
Chan's expressive, open performance anchors the show, especially in the second act, when Su-Ling grows from playful girl to hardened, secretive grown-up. But the first act takes a while to grab our attention. Part of the problem is Chim, who gives little dramatic weight to the snobbish, condescending, class-conscious Poa-Poa except in her sadness over her own daughter.
Ng's merchant Li has a human touch in his more-than-intellectual interest in Su-Ling, while Keira Loughran shines as Su-Ling's ethereal mother and a servant who knows how to play the system.
Joanne Dente 's sumptuous costumes give a real sense of time and place, while her set - which includes a cagelike bed for bride-to-be Su-Ling - makes clear that the unhappy woman is imprisoned in her society.
Under director Kelly Thornton , the second half of the play, with its echoes of Cinderella and Ibsen's plot woven into Su-Ling's tale, offers a rich and engaging narrative.