Whatever happened to Nora? Theater-goers have pondered this question since Henrik Ibsen wrote his immortal 1879 A Doll’s House, which ends when Nora Helmer famously slams the front door, leaving her paternalistic, self-righteous husband and their three children. Nora’s exodus is all one really needs to know about A Doll’s House to enjoy Lucas Hnath’s ingenious and intriguing A Doll’s House, Part 2.
Nominated for eight Tony Awards, and skillfully directed by Les Waters (former associate artistic director at the Rep), Part 2 begins 15 years after Nora’s exit, as we hear her insistently knocking on the very same door. One can’t help but wonder: What has become of her? How has she made her way in the world? Does she regret leaving her comfortable, but stifling and artificial marriage? And most of all: Why is she coming back?
We soon find out that Nora is alive and doing very well, thank you. She has returned because she needs Torvald to give her a divorce since under their laws she cannot easily initiate one herself. Unfortunately, her request is complicated by the fact that all of the villagers think Nora died years ago. Nora’s divorce becomes a difficult point of contention because it will help Nora out of trouble, but place Torvald in jeopardy.
At the heart of this effervescent co-production with the Huntington Theatre Company are the expressive, cerebral, stimulating and occasionally amusing homecoming conversations among Nora (top-notch Mary Beth Fisher, Dear Elizabeth), the old Helmer family retainer, Anne Marie (first-rate Nancy E. Carroll), abandoned husband Torvald (outstanding John Judd) and the now-adult daughter Emmy (excellent Nikki Massoud). The participants’ reactions to Nora and her return are explored from each of their perspectives. It is left to the audience to integrate all of the threads.
The old nursemaid, who has sacrificed her life to care for Nora’s children, is ridden with anger. But she chose duty over happiness. Torvald’s reaction is more nuanced, as he wonders at one point whether had Nora stayed, the two might have worked out their differences. With an attitude that doesn’t quite ring true, daughter Emmy approaches her mother without apparent angst and without much curiosity. Emmy longs to be married and live a conventional life, in opposition to the one her mother chose. She tells Nora, “Don’t make my wants about your wants.”
Part 2 is Lucas Hnath’s first Broadway play (The Christians and Red Speedo were presented off-Broadway). Aside from the thoughtful and entertaining writing, the great success of the 130-minute, intermission-less play is based on the author’s effective combination of normal 21st-century language with period costumes and a sparse 19th-century living room stage set. We get the impression of Ibsen as Nora flounces around the high-ceilinged room in her long and elegant gown, but we are relieved from the archness and archaisms of his language.
For its outstanding acting, writing, and direction, I highly recommend A Doll’s House, Part 2. It’s playing at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre through Oct. 21. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep online.