review: “a doll’s house, part 2”

Remember that 1879 Henrik Ibsen play where Nora left her husband, slamming the door behind her? Hopefully you do, otherwise Lucas Hnath’s new play at the Golden Theater, directed by Sam Gold, won’t mean much for you. If you do recall reading the classic birth-of-realism play in high school or seeing one of various bad movie versions, then you’ll be able to fully appreciate how masterfully written and acted this production is.

A Doll’s House, Part 2 takes place fifteen years after the original, after Nora has slammed that famous door. But this time it Nora who is back knocking at the same door, and she needs something from her ex-husband Torvald. Dramatic/literary theorists, actors, directors, and audience members alike have spent over a hundred years speculating what happened to Nora. This version challenges the popular theories (factory worker, prostitute, homeless) by having her be a famous feminist novel, under a pseudonym, of course.

At the helm of everything is Laurie Metcalf, who is quite simply superb. Her Nora is empowered, independent, happily single, and boldly feminist. She is a Nora for 2017, unapologetically un-Victorian. This is both a strength of the production and potential weak point. Metcalf’s interpretation and performance of Nora are remarkably nuanced, full of comedy and seriousness, desperation and independence, confidence and frustration. However, at the same time, there is nothing about Nora that belongs in this “period piece”–if it can be called that at all.

The largest problem of A Doll’s House, Part 2 is the ambiguous time period: the set by Miriam Buether is mostly bare, but includes modern furniture, the projections by Peter Nigrini and lighting by Jennifer Tipton are decidedly modern, but the costumes by David Zinn are perfectly historically-accurate garments from late nineteenth century. It seems as if all the pressure to have the play seem like a period place was placed on the costumes. The script includes very modern language and swearing, and the actors often made use of practicalities that were extremely casual and non-period appropriate. The combination of all these disparate elements was a somewhat confusing experience for the audience. Was this supposed to be a modern sequel, or a classic period drama? It seems like the playwright, director, designers, and actors all had different answers.

That being said, it was still an incredibly enjoyable play. It had a cast of only four, but every single actor gave an impeccable performance. Fighting against Metcalf’s Nora is Chris Cooper as Torvold, the bitter ex-husband who sees no reason why he should help Nora, who is still angry at. Jayne Houdyshell plays the aging maid/nanny Anne-Marie who gave up raising her own children so she could be a maternal stand-in for the children Nora abandoned. Condola Rashad plays Emmy, the left-behind infant daughter who has now grown up into an engaged young woman. With a show compromised of four powerhouse actors, it is no surprised that every actor in the show received a Tony nomination.

Metcalf never leaves the stage, and shares approximately one long scene with each of the other actors, where they mainly exchange beautifully-crafted monologues. Overall Cooper is no match for Metcalf, but Houdyshell and Rashad stand their ground; Houdyshell is fed up with Nora’s antics and tired of all the drama, while Rashad is a delicate but fierce and understanding woman who understands her parents better than they think. Both actresses give powerful performances that make the audience question the priorities of Nora.

But the true triumph of A Doll’s House, Part 2 is its refreshingly feminist political message. Nora survived being a single woman, and in fact she thrives being alone and being herself. She doesn’t need a man and she preaches her gospel, telling other women in unhappy marriages to leave their husbands. In addition the Hnath we can thank classic feminist scholars Elaine Schwalter and Carroll Gilligan for providing the potent message.

A Doll’s House, Part 2 leaves us exactly where A Doll’s House (part 1) left us: with Nora heading out the big door–but while she was maybe nervous or unsure or scared the first time, this time she is casual, collected, and empowered. She may have come back to get something from Torvald, but she comes to realize that she doesn’t need him after all; she survived on her own so far, and she can do it again. Nora proves that women don’t need a man, and if for nothing else, this is an excellent reason to go see A Doll’s House, Part 2.