by Barbara Waldinger
Henrik Ibsen is a tough act to follow. At the end of his 1879 masterpiece, A Doll’s House, audiences gasped as Nora Helmer left her husband and three children, delivering what George Bernard Shaw famously called “the door slam heard around the world,” presumably never to return. Although it seemed that during her final conversation with her husband, Torvald, Nora expressed everything she had kept bottled up inside, playwright Lucas Hnath has taken it upon himself in A Doll’s House, Part 2, now playing at Barrington Stage Company, to imagine her return after fifteen years.
Commonly deemed the father of modern drama, Ibsen transformed the popular 19th century genre, the well-made play, with its contrivances and sub-plots, into realistic, psychologically-based dramas about social issues of the time. But Hnath resorts to a contrivance to explain Nora’s return: because Torvald has neglected to file for divorce (though it was what he agreed to do years ago since the law made it almost impossible for a woman), Nora, having behaved as a single woman all this time (working, signing contracts, enjoying lovers) could now be subject to criminal prosecution if it were discovered that she is married. She must therefore convince him to sign the divorce papers.
Premiering at South Coast Repertory in 2017, A Doll’s House, Part 2 transferred to Broadway, where it received Tony nominations for all four actors, the play, the director and the costume designer. Laurie Metcalf won the Tony for Best Actress for her portrayal of Nora.
In a BookFilter interview with Michael Giltz, playwright Hnath speaks about the ten years he worked on case intake for a not-for-profit legal organization, where he represented students whose unemployment claims were denied. There he learned the similarities between drama and the courtroom, by asking the questions: “what did you do?”, “why?”, and “can I make a reasonable case for it?” He explains that in his plays he presents the best possible argument for each of the characters. In A Doll’s House, Part 2, Hnath, recalling the childhood trauma of his parents’ divorce as well his own recent break-up, argues the different points of view of Torvald (Christopher Innvar), Nora (Laila Robins), their daughter Emmy (Ashley Bufkin), and even the Nanny, Anne Marie (Mary Stout).
The Barrington production offers a strange mixture of 19th century costumes (beautifully designed by Jen Caprio) and 21st century dialogue. The expletives used liberally by every character are jarring. But for the shock value of this language (which draws laughs from the audience), there would not be such an obvious disparity between the two time periods. Perhaps that separation is what the playwright intends, reminding us of how far (or not so far) we have come in the last century and a half in terms of women’s rights. The music, a modern version of Lesley Gore’s 1963 feminist hit “You Don’t Own Me,” whose appropriate lyrics could have been spoken by Nora, begins with loud, suspenseful chords between scenes (Lindsay Jones, Sound designer).
The spare beige set, designed by Brian Prather based on the playwright’s instructions, contains only two chairs with the famous door looming prominently upstage. All traces of Nora have been removed from the home, as evidenced by an obvious space on the empty wall where a picture of her mother used to hang.
The direction, by Joe Calarco, a BSC Associate Artist (as are Caprio, Prather and Innvar), is taut and fast-paced, with Nora re-arranging the chairs as she decides where to sit vis-à-vis each of the other characters. As Nora, Robins is sure of herself, never seeming to doubt that she will get want she wants with a minimum of effort. But she learns that people have their own needs and she cannot manipulate them as if they were puppets. Both Stout’s Anne Marie and Bufkin’s Emmy dig in their heels when they sense Nora’s purpose (to help her convince Torvald to give her the divorce), and that she has no interest in either of them. Here is where the playwright fails these talented actresses: their scenes with Nora seem absolutely unrealistic—human feelings and reactions are all but left out.
On the other hand, Innvar’s Torvald is everything one hopes for: silent at first, but once he begins to express his emotions he never stops. The scenes between Nora and Torvald, where they finally get to talk about what happened in their marriage and how each of them suffered in its aftermath and still do, are the most riveting in the play. Hnath, at long last, hits his stride.
In Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Torvald gets the worst of the argument, whereas in this sequel, every character is both right and wrong. In a talk back, when the audience was asked by a show of hands which character they thought was right, there were some surprising results.
A Doll’s House, Part 2 ends with a soft closing, rather than a slam, of the door—similarly it lacks the impact of Ibsen’s towering drama.
A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2, runs on the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage from July 12–28. Tickets may be purchased online at barringtonstageco.org or call 413-236-8888.
Barrington Stage Company presents A DOLLL’S HOUSE, PART 2 by Lucas Hnath. Directed by Joe Calarco. Cast: Mary Stout (Anne Marie), Laila Robins (Nora), Christopher Innvar (Torvald), Ashley Bufkin (Emmy). Scenic Designer: Brian Prather; Costume Designer: Jen Caprio; Lighting Designer: Chris Lee; Sound Designer: Lindsay Jones; Wig Designer: J. Jared Janas; Production Stage Manager: Leslie Sears.
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission. Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, 30 Union St., Pittsfield, MA., from July 12; closing July 28.