It was the door slam heard around the world. In Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play A Doll’s House, Nora stumbles upon her true self and escapes a stifling marriage, shocking audiences with her melodramatic exit.
In his 2017 drama A Doll’s House, Part 2, playwright Lucas Hnath, an enfant terrible of the American theatre, audaciously takes up where Ibsen left off.
Such contemporary “sequels” can lead to mixed results.
Happily, Hnath’s excellent 90-minute (no intermission) play — benefiting from a superior Belfry Theatre production — is a tour de force. Michael Shamata’s direction is superb, the set is wonderful, the cast is strong. No serious theatregoer should miss this intriguing and provocative Canadian premiere.
One need not know Ibsen’s original play to enjoy A Doll’s House, Part 2 (although those unfamiliar with the drama will find reading it adds resonance). In the original A Doll’s House, bourgeois banker Torvald treats his young wife Nora like a pretty toy. While not a bad man, he is paternal and condescending in a manner typical of the era.
Faced with the prospect of scandal, Torvald shows his true colours by denouncing Nora, who then realizes the marriage is a charade and famously departs at the play’s end.
Hnath must have thought: “Well, that certainly leaves us hanging.” A Doll’s House, Part 2 begins with Nora knocking on Torvald’s door after a 15-year absence. Well-dressed and prosperous, she’s now a successful author writing proto-feminist novels under a pseudonym.
It transpires that unfinished business is the primary reason for her visit. Nora just discovered that Torvald never divorced her. She wants him cut this final tie, since carrying on as a single woman while technically married puts her in legal jeopardy.
What follows is a coruscating battle of the sexes in which Hnath goes unrelentingly to bat for each character with passion and bristling intelligence (think Tom Stoppard or a more balanced version of David Mamet’s Oleanna).
At the reunion, Nora (Martha Burns) restates her reasons for ending the marriage, contending that Torvald (Benedict Campbell) fell in love with an idea of her — that of the charming little hausfrau — which never truly existed. She is presented as a bona fide feminist whose brave case is essentially unassailable. Or is it?
The playwright has the insight and wit to avoid painting Torvald as a #MeToo cad. Instead, he’s created a well-meaning character who merely fell into a role — that of the protective patriarch — as dictated by 19th-century society. At the same time, Torvald is no saint; he can be lugubriously slow on the uptake. We feel for him in his confusion.
At the end of A Doll’s House, Part 2, he makes a huge personal sacrifice that is summarily and rather cruelly dismissed by Nora on principle. With elephantine despair, Torvald wails: “I’m just trying to be a good guy here!” — we empathize with this ordinary duffer roped into an extraordinary situation.
What pulls A Doll’s House, Part 2 into the realm of the remarkable is the appearance of Emmy (Alice Snaden). Her mother knew her only as an infant. Emmy and Nora meet mostly because mom needs help in convincing a reluctant Torvald to proceed with the divorce. Emmy points out that it’s not as simple as it seems. For years, her father publicly explained Nora’s departure by implying she had died. If this falsehood is exposed, it will ruin him.
Emmy is presented as a young woman with a mind of her own — and she’s quite different from Nora. She yearns for a traditional marriage and family, something for which she makes a convincing case, thus casting firebrand Nora in a new (and perhaps less flattering) light. Snaden is a promising young actor who, on Thursday night, cleverly captured the character’s dignity, intelligence and emotional vulnerability.
As Nora, Burns — another good actor — was a strong presence, but seemed stiff in opening scenes. That wore off as the play progressed. Especially fine was her final turn with Torvald, an emotionally complex sequence in which each character comes to some understanding of the other.
Campbell was superb throughout. It’s a somewhat passive role, as Torvald is typically merely reacting to Nora. Yet the veteran actor cannily caught the essence of a wounded character struggling to retain his dignity as his world appears to crumble.
Also impressive was Barbara Gordon, who plays Anne Marie, Torvald’s long-time maid. She comes closest to reflecting the audience’s neutral point of view. Despite almost being part of the family, the maid sees each member objectively. (Hnath’s trick of employing a contemporary vernacular perhaps wears thinnest with this character, who, at one unlikely point, blasts Nora with an f-bomb.)
One of director Michael Shamata’s strengths is an ability to dig deep into the emotional worlds of characters, bringing out complexities with skill and humanity.
As the playwright intends, each of the four is presented as a sympathetic, three-dimensional person. Interestingly, Nora’s physicality is initially presented in an angular, even geometrical way. In opening scenes, for example, her arms were typically bent into spiky right angles, something that softens as the play proceeds. I don’t know whether it was Shamata or Burns who hatched this, but it’s rather ingenious.
Designer Christina Poddubiuk’s monumental set depicts a prosperous man’s living room as a tasteful mausoleum. The beige walls are gigantic, dwarfing the sparse furniture. In one corner, in silent reproach, sits a 15-foot-tall doll house. In another meta-theatrical touch, the play’s title and names of characters are projected on the head of a massive entry door.
With A Doll’s House, Part 2, this playwright intends to pose questions rather than answer them. He also intends to provoke the audience. And he succeeds absolutely. Our sympathies ping-pong from one character to another.
Overall, Hnath suggests it’s worth making an effort to recognize validity in opinions that differ from ours. A simple thing, perhaps. Yet in a politically volatile age, with the right and left becoming increasingly polarized, it’s an important thing to bear in mind.