Story: Fifteen years after Nora Helmer abruptly walked out on her family in late 19th century Norway, she knocks on the same door she previously slammed in an act of defiance against her husband Torvald.
She’s recognized by her long-time nanny Anne Marie, who also cared for Nora’s three children after mysteriously abandoning her own daughter many years before. Nora had written Anne Marie in advance to make sure she would at least be allowed access to her former home.
She’s come back with a purpose. She never actually divorced Torvald, and now an especially punitive judge will likely punish her severely if he finds out she is a married woman who has had affairs and challenged the very concept of marriage for a decade and a half.
As Nora subsequently has made a very fine living as a feminist novelist, her unpopular views target her for revenge by a male-dominated society. She suspects her return will fuel a response by her husband, but she doesn’t count on the unexpected reception she is given by her daughter Emmy, who was just a small child when Nora left.
There is an old bromide that “time heals all wounds.” Does that hold true in the Helmer household?
Highlights: The Rep joins 26 other companies nationwide which are staging Lucas Hnath’s clever and creative ‘sequel’ to Henrik Ibsen’s 19th century masterpiece, A Doll’s House, in the 2018-19 theater season. In the case of The Rep, director Timothy Near and her colleagues present a smart, stylish rendition of Hnath’s one-act work which will keep one guessing and pondering its ramifications well beyond the show’s conclusion.
Other Info: Hnath’s original work premiered on Broadway last year, running for six months and garnering eight Tony Award nominations, including a Best Actress Award for Laurie Metcalf. His effort runs approximately 90 minutes and includes abundant comic moments amidst the serious topics raised.
The Rep’s version benefits from an arresting set designed by Scott Neale. It’s a drawing room or living room which looks more like an attic, where chairs are stacked upon one another in a corner and the back wall is dirty and grungy, appearing cleaner only where portraits and pictures have been removed. A lonely rocking horse accentuates the forlorn atmosphere.
Ann G. Wrightson contributes the diffuse, complementary lighting, while Rusty Wandall’s moody sound design led by a lonely piano bolsters the show before it begins and during brief interludes between scenes. Handsome, Victorian-era costumes designed by Victoria Livingston-Hall seem an appropriate fit for a work set in 1894 or so.
The major problem with A Doll’s House, Part 2 is Hnath’s insistence on contemporary vernacular spoken by the four 19th century characters. Vulgarities spouted casually and frequently in today’s society seem jarringly out of sync with the play’s setting, even given its subject matter. This is intentional on Hnath’s part, perhaps to ‘modernize’ the characters.
Hnath’s dialogue offers plenty of food for thought and is handled with considerable elan by Near’s well-cast quartet. Especially noteworthy is Andrea Abello’s performance as grown-up daughter Emmy. Abello delivers the young woman’s acerbic and pointed response to her mother’s arrival with as much persuasion from the way she cocks her head and smiles chillingly as how she delivers Hnath’s pithy lines. It’s an engaging and refreshing performance.
Tina Johnson shows the essence of nanny Anne Marie, who alternately reprimands Nora for her unconventional escape from the strictures on women in her Norwegian society while needing to be reminded of how she herself abandoned her own daughter.
The pivotal role of Nora is handled with aplomb and pinpoint persuasion by Caralyn Kozlowski, who shapes her character’s substantial philosophical and social questions with clarity as a woman who’s seen life from two radically different perspectives. Yet, she still chafes for complete freedom from a society built by men to keep their women repressed. She adds or subtracts layers of clothing as Nora contemplates her possible outcomes.
Completing the quartet in finely wrought style is Michael James Reed as the buttoned-down, repressed Torvald. Reed’s Torvald stiffly acknowledges Nora’s return, rebukes her for what she’s done to their family and then makes a tardy attempt to reconcile with his wife, even to her satisfaction if possible. He’s at his best as he sits crumpled with a bandaged head, a nice touch by Near to symbolize Torvald’s precipitous decline.
The back story to A Doll’s House is fascinating reading, something Hnath doubtless delved into during his research. While paying homage to Ibsen’s landmark literary masterpiece, Hnath continues the original’s path to controversy with this substantial sequel. See Near’s impressive interpretation and draw your own conclusions.
Play: A Doll’s House, Part 2
Company: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through November 4
Tickets: $19-$92; contact 968-4925 or www.repstl.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Eric Woolsey