A Doll's House, Part 2
In 1879, Nora slammed the door on Torvald, and it shocked Victorian readers and, soon thereafter, audiences world-wide. A Doll's House catapulted Henrik Ibsen into the international spotlight, and solidified his position as a subversive writer. Nearly 140 years later, Lucas Hnath, a subversive and gifted writer in his own right, imagines what happened after the door slammed.
Details reveal themselves naturally so I won't give too much away (especially not the 100% perfect, A++ first and final moments of the show). Suffice it to say that A Doll's House, Part 2 picks up 15 years after Nora (Laurie Metcalf) left her husband, Torvald (Chris Cooper), and young children. The doll returns to her house, which Miriam Buether has cleverly designed to suggest a boxing ring. The metaphor continues in the direction (by Tony winner Sam Gold), as actors brace themselves on and grasp at the walls like a boxer working the ropes. Toward the end, we find both Nora and Torvald on the floor, waiting to see who is down for the count, and who will rise, victorious in the match.
When Nora arrives, she finds her nanny, Anne Marie (Jayne Houdyshell), still there, having raised the children and kept Torvald company. Later, she meets with her daughter, Emmy (Condola Rashad). We learn what Nora's been up to (I'll give you a hint: it involves making good on the feminist inklings she had in part one), and why she's returned.
Hnath's play is almost a well-made play (keeping fidelity of time and location), save for a brief time lapse between scenes in the middle of the play. This slight lapse, as well as the projected scene titles (like boxing round cards), bothered me a little because I wanted this play's structure to match its source material; I thought that would have made a nice parallel. This is a minor quibble, of course, and does not take away from the quality of the play.
The young and promising Hnath (The Christians) wrote an incredibly compelling play, bringing a modern sensibility and vernacular to this dusty classic. Much of the funny and persuasive dialogue is delivered in speeches, not unlike in Ibsen's play, yet this small but mighty cast palpably reacts to and connects with one another. You can see that the content of their speeches is getting through. (To the audience, too. Gold (Fun Home, John) has his actors deliver many of their speeches while looking out to the audience, kind of like a boxer (or WWE wrestler) hyping the crowd.)
Tony winner Houdyshell (The Humans) is does nice work, especially when in co-conspirator mode with Nora. Tony nominee Rashad (Stick Fly, Romeo and Juliet) deftly lulls Nora into a false sense of security with her sweetness, only to reveal Emmy's equally feisty and cunning as her mother. Academy Award winner Cooper (Adaptation) triumphantly returns to the Great White Way with a fittingly understated performance. Torvald was always nice and mild mannered, which bothered Nora, and Cooper takes those traits and makes Torvald a whole person.
The play belongs, though, to three-time Tony nominee Laurie Metcalf (The Other Place), who absolutely commands the stage. Her physicality tells you just as much as her words. (Watch how she drapes and spreads herself over the furniture.) She shows us Nora is independent, finished with mores, and perhaps a bit exasperated to have to be there in the first place. When Nora regales Anne Marie with the story of what she's been doing and the controversy it caused, it almost feels like she's giving the world's greatest TED Talk. Metcalf, of course, takes you in. This is no prepared speech—this is a passionate woman with strong convictions, and she is honoring us by letting us in on her secrets.
Right before Nora leaves Torvald in Ibsen's play, he says to her, "Before all else, you are a wife and a mother." Nora, with courage and conviction, replies, "I don't believe that any longer. I believe that before all else I am a reasonable human being, just as you are—or, at all events, that I must try and become one." Female empowerment was just as germane to humanity in 1879 as it is now. Nora's feminist struggles, and the ripple effects they have on her (previously) loved ones, sound entirely (and, perhaps, unfortunately) modern. As written by Hnath and embodied by Metcalf, Nora is no longer a doll. She has, indeed, become a live, vital, reasonable human being.