The door slam heard around the world.
Has there ever been a more memorable exit than Nora Helmer banging the door closed on her life, marriage and children in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House–other than perhaps the odd stage direction in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale: “Exeunt, pursued by bear.”
Nora’s action shook audiences in 19th century Norway and beyond (Ibsen even wrote an alternate ending for theaters that banned depictions of women deserting husband and children). To this day, Nora’s decision to choose herself over being a wife and mother still carries a distinct frisson, with audiences either branding her a feminist heroine or a monster.
That definitive door slam was a satisfying, shocking ending to Ibsen’s play. But did you ever wonder what happened to Nora when she stepped out of respectability into a society that was cruel to women in general, but even more harsh to those they considered unwomanly and inhuman?
Playwright Lucas Hnath did. The exuberant imagination of A Doll’s House, Part 2 is smart on two levels. It is perceptive, funny and intelligent, but smarts like a slap in its portrayal of gender roles and the expectations of what it is to be a woman.
A Doll’s House, Part 2 from Round House Theatre closes June 30, 2019 at the Lansburgh Theatre. Details and tickets
Much less a single woman, which was a rare and reviled breed in Nora’s time. Single women were either prostitutes, factory drudges or spinsters considered a burden on the family. An emancipated woman was almost unheard of in the 19th century, and those who chose to go it alone were always accompanied by a whiff of suspicion or scandal, since it was deemed unnatural to be a single woman, forsaking children and a spousal protector over their own needs, their own aspirations.
A Doll’s House, Part 2, directed with wit and wrath by Nicole A, Watson, takes place 15 years after Nora walked out. Hnath conjectures what happened to Nora (Holly Twyford, radiantly strong and heroically selfish) and her husband Torvald (Craig Wallace, his stoicism and dignity concealing a mighty hurt) and her children, in particular only daughter Emmy (Kathryn Tkel, a marvel of cold, perfunctory logic and poise), who was raised by Anne Marie (Nancy Robinette, masterful as a servant defined and resigned by her servitude), who was also Nora’s nanny.
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It’s a doozy, Nora’s fate, and not what you’d expect. Her family and community speculated when she disappeared that she fell into disrepute, with so few options open to women without the protection of marriage and family.
Nora not only survived, but flourished, but after two years of self-imposed silence to still the stern male voices in her head, which she relates in an incandescent scene where she tries to make Torvald understand the crushing unhappiness and suffocation that led to her choice. And how long it took to get over it and move forward.
If things are so dandy, then why is she back? Don’t want to spoil the delectable plot twists and machinations of the characters, but suffice it to say that unfinished business has put Nora in a pickle. She needs Torvald for the first time in 15 years and expects him and everyone else to fall into line and do what she asks.
Hnath’s crisp, often laugh-out-loud dialogue contains modern language and profanity—can’t imagine any woman dropping f-bombs in 1894—which seemed to disconcert some members of the opening night audience, but I saw it as the playwright making deft, devastating connections between the past and present and how little has changed in the arena of women’s rights. And even, in light of recent events, how we seem to be going backwards in our thinking of women’s identities, ownership of their bodies, and narrowing definitions of motherhood and wifely roles.
Nora, like most modern women, is punished for her choices. And she’s thought of as heartless. But as Twyford plays her, perhaps Nora has too much heart for one body to contain. She, like so many of us, believes she can have it all, but when she tries to get it she’s continually slapped back and slapped down by society for having the nerve to be ambitious, to want more than one identity, to change her vision of “me” as time and circumstances change.
Her daughter Emmy must have absorbed this lesson in the womb, or perhaps she’s overcompensating for maternal abandonment, but she’s a throwback to the times in which Nora came of age. Tkel exudes star power in the role, turning maybe 10-15 minutes of stage time into a scene-stealing wonder as she schools Nora on just who she is and what she wants—which is what her mother rejected – marriage and respectability. But then again, Emmy’s blazing intelligence and resourcefulness hints that she may be more of a chip off the old Nora block than she admits.
You’d think Emmy would take a few cues about societal expectations—or maybe she did—from Anne Marie, the loyal-to-a-fault servant whose choice as a young woman is a weary echo of Nora’s. Nancy Robinette’s sure hand with the role, along with her impresario timing, gives us an Anne Marie who knows and feels far more than she lets on, and whose servitude has both worn her down and enriched her.
And Nora was resourceful back then when married to Torvald and now when she stands in the parlor 15 years later asking for help. Despite his controlling ways, she knows how to play him like a fiddle, and he responds in kind. Their final blow-out argument is a paean to great acting and marital manipulation, as the two find words suddenly inadequate and start to go after each other like two kung-fu masters, before thinking better of it and retiring to their respective corners for a breather. Brilliant.
A Doll’s House, Part 2 dazzles with its wordplay, the ebullient humor that is on the delirious verge of spiraling into screwball comedy, the tangle of emotions that knot and vex and bubble up no matter how hard you try to suppress them. But as a woman watching this play, all you can think is that this is so sad. This is so unfair. This is so me.
A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath . Director: Nicole A. Watson.. Featuring: Nancy Robinette, Kathryn Tkel, Holly Twyford, Craig Wallace. Scenic Designer: Paige Hathaway. Lighting Designer: Harold F. Burgess II. Sound Designer: Roc Lee. Props Master: Kasey Hendricks. Fight Choreographer: Casey Kaleba. Dramaturg: Gabrielle Hoyt. Assistant Director: Erika Noelle Williams. Production Stage Manager: Samantha Wilhelm. Produced by Round House Theatre at the Lansburgh Theatre. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.