The door closing was a “shot heard round the world.” Audiences were shocked as Nora Helmer leaves her husband and children in Ibsen’s classic, A Doll’s House (1878.) The play in which a woman finally rebels against the patriarchal society in which she had no legal rights is a staple in high schools and colleges. The ending prompted questions about what happens to Nora after she leaves. She has no money, skills or support system. What does she do? Will she ever return? How could she leave her children?
Playwright Lucas Hnath strives to address these questions in A Doll’s House, Part 2. It begins with a knock on the same door from which Nora departed 15 years earlier. The room into which she’s shown by Anne-Marie, the faithful servant (played by the wonderful character actress Jayne Houdyshell), is almost bare.
Nora enters bursting with confidence and energy. The incomparable Laurie Metcalfe is Nora, a self-made woman. For years she’s made her living as an author, writing under a pseudonym, expressing the angst of women oppressed by their lives. Metcalfe mines humor in Nora’s accounts of her life. She’s expressive and looms large onstage. She paces the stage as if delivering a lecture to a women’s studies class about the hazards of marriage, but Ann-Marie is not impressed. After all, she was the one who has stayed with Torvald to raise the children.
Nora optimistically notes several times that life is changing and women will have equal rights within 20 or 30 years. Each time the audience snickered. There was also some laughter (amongst the slightly older matinee audience) each time Ann-Marie curses (not infrequently). The cursing made the play seem more 21st century than 20th.
Directed by Sam Gold, the talented cast of four is rounded out by Chris Cooper as Torvald, seemingly gentle, chastened and sincere, and, as grown daughter Emmy, Condola Rashad is absolutely adorable, speaking quickly and dispassionately with a touch of naïveté. The cast is wonderful and all four have been nominated for theater awards.
Is A Doll’s House, Part 2 to be taken as a sequel, a continuation or a separate entity? Torvald, as a husband, believed that the family’s life and fortunes revolved around him, yet in Part 2, Torvald shows a complete about-face, showing remorse and taking blame. Despite the 15 years, his change is hard to accept. Ibsen told an important story but sadly, despite Nora’s optimism, things haven’t changed that much.