ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS, NJ – The First Avenue Playhouse is the oldest, and many say, the very best, of the dinner or dessert theaters in Monmouth County. The Stone Church Players are magnificent, especially when they take on the masters like Shakespeare.

   But over on the other side of the county, in Freehold, there’s another gem for those of us who love small town theater at a most reasonable price. Center Players take on some pretty impressive challenges of their own in their little theater on South Street, just down from the Hall of records. And the play that just opened is no exception.

   A Doll’s House, written in the 19th century by Henrik Ibsen, was controversial at the time and remains controversial in the 21st century, for the very same reasons. It’s the story of a married couple at Christmas in the 1880s and the controversy focuses on whether a wife should be subservient to her husband, whether the end justifies the means when it comes to breaking the law, and whether any of us should be making decisions that impact other’s very lives.

   Sounds deep, serious and formidable. It is. But given the outstanding cast and wonderful direction of the play at the Center Playhouse, it’s wonderful, mesmerizing, captivating, and profound. It’s well worth the trip to Freehold from the Bayshore…or any place else.

     One of the charms of Center Playhouse is the fact that serious, experienced and award winning actors blend their talents and love of theater with newcomers, children, and playgoers themselves, and the result is sheer entertainment. Lauren Foxworth, for instance, who plays Nora Helmer, the wife who acts like she really does live in a charmed Doll House, has only been on stage in Freehold once before. But she’s appeared in a number of other community theater roles, including parts in the taming of the Shrews, and Bell, Book and Candle. When she’s not on stage, she’s a professor at SUNY< conducting educational research and teaching preservice teachers. As Nora, she’s impeccable, commanding, driven.

   So is Tom Shewchuk, who plays her husband, Torbald, a first timer to the Center Playhouse, but hopefully a returning actor for many plays to come. He comes off as the arrogant, domineering husband with ideas and convictions a 21st century audience founds almost laughable.

The pair are more than ably supported by a cast that includes David Clarke, who Center Theater playgoers well remember as the wonderful Dr. Lyman in Bus Stop, John Devennie, another first timer in Freehold, but an Excellence in Acting award winner at the NJTL One Act play competition a few years back and a two-time recipient of the Burlington Footlights Best Supporting Actor award; Jill Zaitchick, magnificent as Nora’s friend and dominantly some scenes with her 30 years experience on stage….she was the First Witch in the Stone Church Players’ production of Macbeth and a Middletown resident.

Smaller, but no less perfect roles are played by Phyllis Engelman, who’s been here before, and Roberta Fallon, a charmer who’s generally back stage doing everything that needs to be done in a small theater, but taking on a new challenge as an actress. She’s met her challenge extremely well and hopefully will continue to take on other roles in the future. The children in the play, Abby Leff and Erica Perez are adorable and regrettable that they’re on for such short scenes.

   The play is presented weekends in July and August, and you can get tickets, even selecting your seat, on line by going to www.centerplayers.org. Plan on making a reservation, come early and take advantage of their dinner and theater offer, or visit any of the other great restaurants in Freehold and make it a night worth remembering.