Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 is a cheeky concept that dares to take itself seriously enough to honor its famous predecessor, while creating a potent and entirely fresh theatrical experience.
All who have studied their theatre catechism know that Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is a seminal moment in dramatic art. That rare play which may actually live up to its hype. Nora’s journey to self-awareness and her decision to walk out on her husband and children remains powerful. George Bernard Shaw eloquently described her exit as “the slam heard round the world.”
It is, therefore, intriguing to enter the International City Theatre and find that Yuri Okahana-Benson’s spare set features a large door frame, but no door. Not to worry, director Trevor Biship-Gillespie wants us to see Nora (Jennifer Shelton) hesitate and then steel herself as she approaches the other side of that same door, the one she slammed so consequently 15 years ago.
Over the next 90 minutes, an increasingly uncomfortable Nora will be forced to face the people she deserted all those years ago. First up is Anne Marie (Eileen T’Kaye), the household servant who Nora remembers, if she’s thought of her at all, as a loving ally. But there is bitterness in the woman who stayed and became a surrogate housewife to Torvald (Scott Roberts) and the true mother to Nora’s children.
Coming home unexpectedly, Torvald initially refuses to speak with his wife. Yes, they are still married. This discovery is what has prompted Nora’s visit. To continue her new life as a freethinker and a feminist author, she must get the divorce she only recently discovered he never filed. Their reunion is predictably rocky, then explosive. After all, their marriage was based on a shared fantasy that finally cracked open, allowing Nora the chance to escape.
Hnath has a surprise confrontation up his sleeve when Emmy (Nicolette Ellis) demands to meet the mother she never knew. Emmy’s may make more conventional choices than Nora, but she soon proves herself as ruthless and determined as her mother to protect the life she has carefully designed for herself.
The always erudite Hanth enjoys questioning the accepted interpretation of the original play and riffing off those expectations. He also strips away the Victorian frippery of a realistic production in the simplified set and, most of all, in the terse, vigorous and often profane language spoken by the characters. Biship-Gillespie’s careful and smart direction allows his talented cast to emphasize their characters in those rare moments the script threatens to veer into an intellectual exercise.
T’Kaye has been a performer to cherish for more years than either of us would like to own, and she subtly mines both the hurt and the hope in Anne Marie. Roberts brings layers to Torvald which indicate the growth of this character over the years. Ellis’ sly and civil Emmy almost fools us on her entrance, but she soon reveals the steel beneath the petticoats.
Shelton is known as one of the most accomplished singing actors around, but her Nora proves that she doesn’t have to sing a note to capture our imaginations. Impossibly regal and beautiful upon her entrance, she is the success we didn’t dream Nora could become. But watch her face and body as the questions, accusations, and hard truths are hurled at her. Tiny cracks in the façade appear as she truly faces what she left behind for the first time. She leaves through that same door, unbowed but a different woman. It is a remarkable performance.International City Theatre April 15 – May