Nora returns, and Nora returns in style. She returns as her own fully-realized woman, and even better, keeps learning and growing. It’s a challenge for any writer to credibly imagine what the future would hold for a character, especially as one as well-known as Nora, and living in such an openly repressive time for women. The arc rings true for today as expectations for women’s choices are still seen in the black and white paradigm of selfish/unselfish (especially since unselfish still equates to being subsumed by partners, children, household, aging relatives, etc.).
. . . the play is still a pleasure to get some closure on Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’ and a wonderful chance to watch four nonpareil actors put new flesh and blood on the bones of an old story.
Lucas Hnath took the challenge and created a future for Nora that took her out of her comfortable, middle-class security and forced her to find out who she was and what good was she in the world.
Nora returns to the marriage house, walking through the same front door she left by 15 years earlier because she needs something from Torvald. She had assumed he had filed the divorce papers and had gone on to live life as an independent woman—entering into contracts, buying a house, taking lovers. Turns out that Torvald had lied about her whereabouts to save face, and the lie sort of snowballed by omission and folks think she’s dead. Because she’s still a married woman, with no rights of her own, everything she has done could have her charged with fraud and sent to prison; this only became an issue when a wealthy judge (again a judge could be Nora’s downfall) angry at one of her book’s (yes, she’s a writer now) influence over his wife, who had the temerity to think for herself and leave him. This judge has threatened her with prosecution and prison unless she recants her books’ premises and destroys her reputation and livelihood. If she was divorced, the matter would be moot.
So Nora gathers up her courage and contacts Anne Marie and arranges a meeting with her, and sails into that house determined to resolve this matter. Unfortunately, none of the other three humans are quite as concerned with Nora’s future and reputation as she is—there needs to be a reckoning first.
And it is in the reckonings that much of the humor of the play shines through. For fifteen years, Nora has had the opportunity to live more authentically than she ever dreamed, and she doesn’t at first stop to think about the pain she inflicted on her husband, children and Anne Marie when she left. Part of this journey she’s on is coming to terms with their reality. To her credit, she realizes that she would never go back, and she also realizes that she is willing to face the repercussions of being true to herself.
In spite of her reasoned out beliefs, her passion for a more egalitarian future where women were treated like humans, first of all, and not interchangeable parts second, she can surprise herself. She learns that she still remains enough in thrall to her very proper upbringing that when she meets her daughter for the first time in 15 years, and the girl strides up and vigorously shakes her hand, you can see in the sudden stiffening and minute movements of the body the realization this will not be a tender reunion. She had airily foretold that to the caretaker/nanny, but her body had to learn it too.
Holly Twyford brings this brittle, resolute, daring Nora to glorious contradictory life; she is equaled in her portrayal by Nancy Robinette as seemingly scattered Anne Marie (the caretaker). Anne Marie had been left to take care of the three children when Nora walked out; she had had to give over taking care of her own child in order to earn a living raising Nora’s and Torvald’s offspring. This Anne Marie hits home with some pointed truths about the price of Nora’s freedom within the community, beginning with her discarded domesticity, including Anne Marie’s own dependence on Torvald’s good graces now that she’s aging, because where else can she go? Nora begs Anne Marie to understand the social and patriarchal constructs that force women into these devastating choices, but Anne Marie has no time or energy for that. In some ways, ‘A Doll’s House, Part Two’ echoes the more privileged, largely middle- and upper-class feminist movement starting in the 1960s.
Craig Wallace takes on the role of Torvald (her sort of ex-husband). In the fifteen years that have passed with no communication, he still seems bewildered and certainly still angry. But this man who seems himself as the injured party and doesn’t understand why she left is still willing to listen to Nora. She sees betrayal on the part of both and he sees only betrayal on her part. But in a move very reminiscent of Mister’s in ‘The Color Purple,’ he attempts to make amends for his failure, albeit unilaterally. Craig embodies an older man of his era—privileged, respectable, hewing to society’s expectations (and rewards for that)—and lets us see the confusion and misery behind the bluster.
As Nora’s daughter Emmy, Kathryn Tkel is youthfully radiant and equally passionate. She’s smart and educated and insists on engaging with her mother on adult terms; occasionally we see the hurt of an abandoned child, but her determination to be what she sees as the adult in this relationship drives that performance. Where her mother has the age and experience to feel torn at what she lost not watching this remarkable girl grow up, Emmy has all the righteousness of a 16 – or 17 – or 18-year-old who is determined to be strong, not yet realizing she inherited her mother’s strength. Tkel does a beautiful job of letting us glimpse the vulnerability underneath the righteousness of youth.
At times the more modern language of the dialogue can seem jarring—while it is very funny when Nancy Robinette finally snaps and lets loose several earthy interjections at Nora, it wasn’t all that believable and could take a watcher out of the moment. The staging is the foyer/parlor of the Helmer house; it has a grand door and columns and flooring, but then piled against two of the walls was an odd mélange of not-quite-identifiable objects; most of the action takes place downstage in a series of chairs and one trunk that the actors move around. If the odd bits piled up was meant to suggest the disarray Nora left behind her, or the abandonment felt by Torvald and the children, it wasn’t quite clear. Nicole A. Watson otherwise tautly directed.
While the play may not have broken new ground in its feminist underpinnings, it is still a pleasure to get some closure on Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” and a wonderful chance to watch four nonpareil actors put new flesh and blood on the bones of an old story.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
“A Doll’s House, Part 2” runs through June 30, 2019, Roundhouse Theatre, at The Lansburgh Theatre, Washington, DC. For more information, please click here.