By Jim Kates
When you do this kind of thing it has to be done with bravura and wit — bad poets borrow, good poets steal.
A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath. Directed by Keith Stevens. Staged by the Peterborough Players at 55 Hadley Road, Peterborough, NH, through September 8.
In life, they say, when one door slams shut, another one opens. Not so in theater. Drama without limits becomes soap opera, a timeless plot with no vestige of a beginning and no prospect of an end. Lucas Hnath dares to re-open in A Doll’s House, Part 2 the door that Nora Helmer closed behind her in 1879. (In Emily Boisvert’s set for the Peterborough Players’ production, it is manifestly not the same door as specified by Henrik Ibsen’s stage directions for A Doll’s House.)
A Doll’s House, Part 2 imagines that fifteen years have passed since the conflicts of A Doll’s House, many doors have opened for Nora, and one of them has returned her to the household she had left behind. It’s a dangerous conceit, which the newer playwright tries to turn into a very contemporary take on late nineteenth-century life. When you do this kind of thing it has to be done with bravura and wit — bad poets borrow, good poets steal.
Hnath is no Tom Stoppard, who can play with other people’s work and make it his own. Nor is he another Ibsen, whose threads he conscientiously picks and uses for his own embroidery. Part 2 is static, constructed of a string of Aeschylean dialogues completely within the Helmer family, but without even a chorus to represent a wider world.
The director, Keith Stevens, has not been able to surmount this stasis. He has reproduced the sparseness of the set in the spareness of movement organized around two chairs, behind which the speakers stand or in which they sit, barely moving. And so the energy of A Doll’s House, Part 2 falls completely on the expression of the inner life of the characters, more than it might in a more dynamic situation.
Gus Kaikkonen brings such inner life to Torvald Helmer that he becomes the warm and sympathetic center of the play. The character he plays remains as unsympathetic as he is in Ibsen’s original, but Kaikkonen makes us feel his anguish as he makes sense of the last decade and a half of his grass widowhood. Lisa Bostnar’s Nora conveys less humanity, largely because Hnath has endowed the character with little personality, only a slightly improbable history. A clue to how difficult things are for the actor here is that Nora’s career involves her having used a pen-name, which the playwright keeps calling — inaccurately — a “pseudonym.” The artificiality of that diction pervades her situation and her lines.
Bostnar’s Nora comes most alive, most passionately thoughtful, in her dialogue with the Helmer’s old nanny, Anne-Marie, who has kept the home fires burning after Nora left. Emotion, responsibility, suppressed resentment and gratitude, make this the center of the play. Carolyn Michel represents Anne-Marie’s uneasy position eloquently. She is less successful at reacting to what she hears, at engaging directly with Nora’s own experience.
Anne-Marie suddenly brings Nora together with her grown daughter, Emmy. (We are not shown how this is is effected.) Emmy, personified by Katie Shults, represents a new generation that rejects the lessons that a liberated Nora has learned and is trying to evangelize. Their dialogue is too programmatic to be truly dramatic, and Shults does not reach deeply enough to energize it.
I usually don’t try to tell playwrights what to do, but I wish that Hnath had left Ibsen completely in the background, perhaps by allusion only (as a 1985 Argentine film, The Official Story, did) rather than trying to piggy-back on it. Or that he had made a more ironic comedy of this sequel. As it is, his humor relies too much on a knowing introduction of contemporary attitudes and language, with only one really subtle reach back into A Doll’s House, when Emmy offers to forge a death certificate for her mother.
The Peterborough Players’ production is certainly interesting, but it comes across as a kind of soulless fan fiction.
Jim Kates is a poet, feature journalist and reviewer, literary translator and the president and co-director of Zephyr Press, a non-profit press that focuses on contemporary works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Asia. His latest book is Paper-thin Skin (Zephyr Press), a translation of the Kazakhstani poet Aigerim Tazhi.