The action is set in an incongruous and ahistorical no-man’s land, adrift between realistic drama and farce.
A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath. Directed by Joe Calarco. Staged by Barrington Stage Company at the Boyd-Quinson MainStage, Pittsfield, MA, through July 28.
By Helen Epstein
If you are a reverent Ibsenite like my theater companion, you may be more than a bit irritated, if not offended, by dramatist Lucas Hnath’s re-working of Ibsen’s proto-feminist A Doll’s House. Part 2 is an audacious dramatic work in which Hnath imagines how Nora Helmer’s life might have evolved from 1879 to 1894. Set inside the Helmer’s house in Norway during the last decade of the nineteenth century, the script is written in a slangy, American 21st century idiom (“He’s great!” “Nope.” “I’m pissed.” “Fuck you, Nora!”) that situates the action in an incongruous and ahistorical no-man’s land, adrift between realistic drama and farce.
The Helmers’ iconic door is the fifth character in this 90-minute, one-set production. It opens out onto the world, nicely framing whoever stands on its threshold; exits and entrances are punctuated, a strategy that focuses our attention on the entry. The play begins with persistent knocking. When the door is finally opened by the Helmers’ old and faithful domestic Anne Marie, Nora dramatically re-enters the vestibule of her old home, now shorn of her earlier possessions. The elegant, vaguely Bergmanesque set contains only two straight-backed chairs, on which the two women, then Torvald and Nora, then Nora’s third child Emmy and her mother, take turns sparring about Nora’s decision to leave and its consequences.
“I mean, of course anything that was yours got thrown out after you left,” says Anne Marie.
“Right,” says Nora.
The writing is rarely more memorable than that exchange, but the staging and the formidable delivery of all four actors make sure that every word of dialogue can be heard. The trajectories Hnath has imagined for both Torvald and Nora are equally clear, if unsurprising. The traditional, conventional husband is still living in the same house and working at the same bank, while she has traveled, had several lovers, and earned her living first as a seamstress and then — under a pseudonym — as a successful novelist. Her best-seller is a thinly fictionalized version of her story — though it ends with the heroine’s death. What brings her back home is the threat of scandal and the prospect of a criminal proceeding against her by a judge who is blackmailing her. Torvald, he has discovered, has never filed for divorce (an exclusively male prerogative in 19th century Norway). He has preferred to let his community believe that Nora fell ill and died, rather than admit that she left him of her own free will. This left Nora, who believed that she was no longer a married woman, to unwittingly break law and custom.
Hemmed in by this austere Scandinaviana, Nora turns to be a contemporary example of an aguna – a Jewish woman whose orthodox husband will not grant her a divorce. The notion of equal justice under the law and the role of ill-intentioned men is as central to Hnath’s play as Ibsen’s. But the dramatist is also interested in how Nora’s action has affected the other characters in the couple’s doll house. Unlike Nora, the “faithful” domestic Anne Marie has been unable to leave or reunite with her own child, shackled by poverty and a rigid and sexist class structure; Nora’s daughter Emmy – now adult – has no memory of her as Nora, and is happily anticipating her own marriage. Their two sons have ostensibly grown up and moved away. Torvald himself has not had any love affairs, but has managed to live a respectable life and raise his three children alone.
Director Joe Calarco has staged the production with great lucidity; he has done so well that the incongruities of the script are exposed. But I found his casting and design choices questionable. While the set and costumes were of a piece, evoking 19th century Norway, BSC’s Doll’s House, Part 2 opens with an electronically enhanced instrumental version of Lesley Gore’s 1963 hit “You Don’t Own Me,” which was reprised at the end of the show. The four actors seemed to have been cast and/or directed to work in different styles.
Laila Robins’ portrayal of a high-strung, flamboyant Nora was one dimensional; suitable for a satire, but her Nora has neither the charm of Ibsen’s heroine nor the gravity of the successful 19th century author Hnath invented. In addition, Robins appeared not to trust the strength of the script’s characterization. At times, she seemed to be channeling Hedda Gabler; other times, Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. Her repeated posing and flinging herself histrionically against walls and furniture led me to keep free associating out of the world of Doll House Part 2 instead of drawing me into it.
Christopher Innvar — in his 15th season with BSC — grounded the play. His Torvald was unexpectedly sympathetic and compelling, a convincing portrayal of an unassuming man who had done the best he could with the bad cards life dealt him. Hnath does not make him any more exciting than Ibsen did, but Innvar’s restrained performance invested Torvald with far more gravitas and humanity than the original.
Mary Stout as Anne Marie was stronger than your stereotypical domestic, and Ashley Bufkin, making her BSC debut as the Helmers’ youngest child, Emmy, has enough intriguing presence to hold her own with these three older actors.
If you are an Ibsenite, chances are you will not be impressed by Hnath’s play. If you’ve never seen A Doll’s House, you may wonder what all the fuss is about. I found the sequel to be an interesting gloss on a masterpiece — that made me want to revisit the real thing.
Helen Epstein has been writing for artsfuse since 2010. Her arts journalism and books can be found at plunkettlakepress.org, which also published Joan Templeton’s Ibsen’s Women and other books about the playwright.