Monday, September 17, 2018

"A Doll's House, Part 2"

A Doll’s House, Part 2
Lucas Hnath

Mary Beth Fisher & Nancy E. Carroll
Anyone who has ever seen, read, or even heard of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 classic play, A Doll’s House, has probably created some internal scenario of what happens in the weeks, months, and/or years after young wife/mother Nora Helmer slams the door to her house, leaving her husband and three young children in order to go out into the world and discover her real self.  Maybe that is why when Lucas Hnath’s 2017, Tony nominated play, A Doll’s House, Part 2 begins with a soft knock followed by a loud bang on the door, many folks in the audience immediately laugh. 

All of us who are Ibsen fans are anxious to see Nora return fifteen years later, to find out what happened to her, and to see the reactions of those left behind.   But what soon becomes clear about the spectacularly conceived and scripted A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath is that the new work is not a sequel; it is a play full of both drama and comedy that stands independently on its own with no need to have seen Ibsen’s original. As currently produced by Berkeley Repertory Theatre -- in a co-production with Huntington Theatre -- A Doll’s House, Part 2 is ninety minutes of live theatre at its best, thanks to the impeccably timed, cleverly conceived direction by Les Walters and a cast of four who each capture a persona singularly memorable!

What is immediately clear when the door opens and Nora appears in this 1894 Norwegian household is that this runaway has since been quite successful and is a woman full of self-assurance.  Tall, erect in posture, and head slightly raised with a strong hint of independent confidence, Nora arrives in high-styled coat and hat and totally shocks a dumbstruck Anne Marie -- a limping, aged woman who once raised Nora as her nanny and subsequently raised Nora’s three, abandoned children to their adulthood.  Nora lets it be known, “I’m not the same person who left through that door.”  Anne Marie agrees, noting, “You got a little fatter; you got a little older ... How are your insides?” 

That kind of wry humor continually finds its way into Lucas Hnath’s smart script as well as into choices in Les Walters’ direction – the latter often punctuating the spoken words with delicious pauses that overflow with speechless looks between characters that say volumes loud and clear.  In Part One of five that claims the title “Nora” (as projected on the room’s blank, back wall), Nancy E. Carroll powerfully and passionately makes Nora’s case to the stunned, mostly silent Anne Marie (Mary Beth Fisher) how as a highly successful writer of books about women, she has come to believe that marriage is an institution long overdue its deserved extinction, something she believes will inevitably happen within a few decades.  “Marriage destroys women’s lives,” she preaches to the now scowling, clearly disagreeing Anne Marie.  “Most people would be more fulfilled not being married.” 

Triumphant in her exposé on the evils of marriage (and in doing so sure that she has proven to Anne Marie why she is now a well-renowned, influential author), Nora proceeds to explain why she has arrived.  She has recently discovered that the husband she abruptly left never filed for divorce -- Norway being a country where only the male could file for divorce for no expressed reason and where a woman could only do so if she could prove her husband had done something physically awful and threatening to her.  Further, women at that time could not do business on their own nor take out loans without their husband’s approval.  A loan Nora had once secretly taken out to help her husband take a needed rest in Italy for his health had been discovered by a judge who did not like her views on women’s liberation. That judge now threatens to expose her and most probably ruin her reputation, end her career, and send her to prison.

Nora is now desperately (but without appearing desperate) looking for a way out of this predicament; and for that, she needs and fully expects cooperation from the man to whom she is in fact still his lawfully wedded.  She also is seeking and sure she will get Anne Marie’s aid.  However, the negative responses she receives from her once-nanny are defiantly, humorously (to us) peppered with four-letter words one does not expect from an elderly nanny in the late 1800’s. 

Mary Beth Fisher & Nancy C. Carroll
Both Nancy Carroll and Mary Beth Fisher are extraordinarily splendid in their separate portrayals of two women who have very different outlooks on the role of women in their society.  Ms. Carroll’s Nora is constantly adjusting her arguments and approaches to convince first Anne Marie and later her husband, Torbald, and even her daughter, Emmy, that she deserves their help to remedy this injustice to her – an injustice in her view that is just one of many that all women suffer in a male-dominated world.  She moves about like a boxer in the fighting ring, sizing up her current opponent and looking for ways to coax that person to her side before hitting them with a knock-out argument to win sure-approval of her current request.  At the same time as she runs into what seem often as dead-ends, her Nora gains even more certainty in her own beliefs and next steps, leading to some surprising decisions about her future that only escalate her commanding presence and self-assuredness.

As Anne Marie, Mary Beth Fisher is equally strong and determined in her own right and in her own view of what is right and wrong.  Her initial stone-faced and flat, nasally responses to Nora’s life story and lecture on marriage give way to pointed, strongly felt remarks about how she views Nora’s life decisions and their effects on the rest of the family – including her.  Ms. Fisher displays a myriad of expressions with just a slight movement of head, eyes, or mouth – and even when she is just listening, she is usually communicating entire scripts of her own feelings and reactions.

John Judd & Mary Beth Fisher
When husband/banker Torvald unexpectedly arrives and sees the surprise visitor, his first reaction is, “I have to go to the bathroom.”  When he returns, John Judd does everything he can as Torvald to avoid directly facing Nora, even as she keeps shifting to try to confront him more directly.  When his frozen silence and/or short, expressionless responses finally give way to his emerging response to her request for a divorce, Mr. Judd’s expressions of increasing smirk-to-full-on-grin are enough script to tell us as audience what he will say without having to wait for his spoken words.

Nikki Massoud
The final member of this excellent cast is Nikki Massoud as late-teen Emmy, the daughter of Nora who has no memory of her mother, being only slightly older than a baby when Nora left the family.  When the two meet, Emmy is chatty, cheerful, and fully confident in her own right.  To Nora’s look of combined pride and hurt, Emmy casually remarks, “I think I am better off without growing up with you here.” 

Nora soon learns just how assured and resourceful Emmy is while at the same time she begins to understand that this daughter who is as strong-headed and determined as she, has ideas and beliefs far different from hers – and thus of course in Nora’s view, wrong.  The interactions between mother and daughter are fabulously conceived and orchestrated and are one more example of the play’s overall spell-bounding effects as family members come to grips with their shared and unshared histories, beliefs, and plans of action.

The near-vacant stage with blank, white walls and only the slightest touches of a house’s interior (all designed by Andrew Boyce) provides ample room for the words of the playwright and the personalities of the four principals to fill in all the details one needs to see the complete picture vividly.  Yi Zhao’s striking lighting design makes telling contributions with well-timed shadows or invading light from a hallway to highlight current dialogue and/or revelations.  Annie Smart’s period-appropriate costumes help define the unique personality of each person we meet, including the particularly stunning dress she has created for Nora to swirl around as she paces the room trying to convince each of the other three to do her will.

Nora, Torvald, Emmy, and Anne Marie each take the opportunity to voice their stories and their world views; and each exposes reasons for our to sympathize with them and/or to question their decisions/viewpoints (especially the three Helmer family members).  Their interactions and stances provide rich fodder for follow-up contemplations and discussions by audience members, with the playwright being coy enough never to tip his hand as to which member he favors.  Lucas Hnath’s presentation is more as an observer/reporter with no taking of sides, one way or the other. 

In the hands of Director Les Walters and this highly capable cast and creative team, Berkeley Repertory’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 becomes a do-not-miss production, sure to delight and stimulate both the Ibsen fan and the Ibsen neophyte.

Rating: 5 E

A Doll’s House, Part 2 continues through October 21, 2018 on the Peet’s Theatre stage of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available at or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Company

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