By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
When we last viewed Torvald and Nora Helmer in Henrik Ibsen’s immortal play A Doll’s House, Nora had made an irreconcilable decision. Simply put, she wanted more from life than being a wife and mother. Her purpose was to become “a human being” and not be defined by others’ expectations of herself. The epitome of a repressed, unsatisfied 19th-century Norwegian housewife, Nora knew not where she would go, but it didn’t matter. Her hope for happiness and eventual fulfillment were expressed with an earth-shattering door slam at play’s end.
Playwright Lucas Hnath revisited the primary players in the Ibsen work and imagined what might have happened should Nora have elected to return. His play, A Doll’s House, Part 2, picks up 15 years after her shocking door slam, as she returns to the home she abandoned to find closure, but to also, begrudgingly, deal with the repercussions of her scandalous decision.
In this updated story, Nora is deftly played with humor and sensitivity by Jessica Podewell and the rigid, frozen Torvald is played expressively with an equal amount of outrage and wounded pride by Trey Burvant. Directed by Aimée Hayes, this production is the regional premiere for Hnath’s work that won a first-time Tony Award for Laurie Metcalf just one year ago on Broadway.
Hayes has assembled a top-rated cast and a beautifully framed staging to welcome patrons to Southern Rep’s new home, the former site of the St. Rose de Lima Church on historic Bayou Road.
Instead of a slam, the play begins with two violinists – Tarrah Reynolds and Kate Withrow – assuming their positions at the rear of the stage and playing a dramatic crescendo as we hear a plaintive knock at the door.
To be sure, Nora and Torvald hold most of our interest during the play and their ability to relate to each other with anger, resentment and, eventually, a measure of understanding. But there is much for the characters to go through before that final moment of civility and clarity.
Lianne Pattison performs as Anne Marie, the housekeeper and nanny to the children left behind, who is also excellent in letting her former mistress know the full measure of her anger at the havoc she left behind. This is reinforced by her daughter Emmy, the last of the children still living at home and well-played by Sarah Durn. The years have erased the memory of her mother, but even still, the only logical conclusion household members could envision was that she had met an untimely demise.
In perhaps a wistful acknowledgment to today’s fiercely proud and assured 21st-century women, Hnath explains Nora’s choice and her way out of her trapped existence. Assuming a nom de plume, she has supported herself for more than a decade as a feminist writer, hiding in plain sight.
While it is not necessary to have read the original work, it does help to have a better understanding for what Hnath does with Ibsen’s characters, essentially bringing Nora and Torvald into a better appreciation for each other and what is truly important in their lives in their later years.
While some might object to Hnath updating Ibsen’s characters with the sensibilities of modern times, the fact is that this is an interesting twist to characters we already know. Hnath does take liberties with the characters that Ibsen most likely would have never conceived. It is not unlike Steven Spielberg’s reimagining of Peter Pan in his film “Hook,” where Peter actually does grow up and is forced to return to Neverland to save his own children. While the film deviated from author James Barrie’s original storyline, it did permit viewers an opportunity to learn new aspects and challenges to Peter and the Lost Boys.
In A Doll’s House, Part 2, Nora finds that she must return for legal reasons. When she raps on the door, she knows full well what she needs. She needs a legal instrument to acknowledge her marriage is over. Yet, when that door opens, the emotional outplay is not expected and Hnath adds complexity to Ibsen’s characters. With such a dramatic opening, it is not expected that the play would be filled with humor or that characters at odds with one another would find commonality with one another and, perhaps, a measure of forgiveness.
Situated almost shadow-like on stage, the two violinists play chamber music pieces written by award-winning composer Tucker Fuller that follow or serve as prequels to the action. Though the music is modern and new, Fuller’s compositions are thoroughly authentic to the period. It is a brilliant and outstanding marriage of two art forms that compliments the exceptional acting on the stage and helps to establish the time when the action is set.
The play, which was to have closed this weekend has been extended through October 28. This production is a credit to the inventiveness of the author and adds to the legacy of the original work. Many may view it as the second of two book holders that tells a fuller, more realized examination of the hardship of marriage, the difficulties of maintaining a relationship and the vicissitudes of raising children against the backdrop of the times. Nora’s ultimate decision to walk away from her home occurs at a time when women were thought of as chattel with virtually no rights.
With a charming scenic design by David Raphel (that important front door looms large in the middle of the stage) and costumes flawlessly executed by Cecile Casey Covert, A Doll’s House, Part 2 is a reminder of the excellent period work Southern Rep produces time after time. (One only has to recall last year’s Christmas at Pembelton as yet another enjoyable theatrical outing.) Credit should also be noted of the lighting design by Joan Long that works effectively in every scene.
A Doll’s House, Part 2 continues through October 28 at the new permanent home of Southern Rep, 2541 Bayou Road in New Orleans, LA. For tickets call 504-522-6545 or click here. (Ticket purchases for this show may be applied to and converted into a season ticket purchase.)