The grandfather clock and the family painting are gone. Of course they are—they belonged to Nora (Mary Beth Fisher), but Nora left 15 years ago. That’s when she left her husband Torvald (John Judd) and their three children, and she never went back. Her stubborn, almost petty knocking as the show opens, indicates she’s only back because she has to be. And she certainly won’t be back for long.
Neither this stubbornness or the anticipation for reconnection subside throughout Lucas Hnath’s 90-minute intermission-less exploration of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, picking up 15 years after the classic ended over a century ago.
Or so we were told, by a woman arriving next to us at the brazenly-titled A Doll’s House, Part 2. The stage—featuring only two wood chairs, a wooden coat rack, a wooden side table, and overly fluorescent lights—“Looks like an Ibsen set, doesn’t it?” Perhaps.
It was a random Tuesday night, but she and the other audience members arrived–orchestra seating only–all as eager as if Panera Bread was raising the senior discount from 10 to 15 percent. Had any other college students had heard of that night’s show? And if so, were they willing to pay the closest parking fee of $42 for it?
If they hadn’t, that’s truly a shame. What followed was an insightful continuation of Ibsen’s musings on a woman’s obligation to her husband and children when it comes into conflict with an autonomy no woman was given at the time.
Ibsen allowed Nora to slam the door and exact her revenge on the ties that bound her to domestic life. But Hnath brings Nora back to reality, forcing her to move past rationalizing her untimely departure from her children and, if nothing else, face what remains.
Nora arrives back home because of a problem she’s encountered as a scandalous, vaguely feminist author who writes under a pseudonym. Following the kind of rant about the banality of marriage most commonly attributed to a group of all-male freshmen who just spent the first week together in their dorm, Nora reveals to Anne Marie (Nancy E. Carroll), her former housekeeper and, thankfully, the only character present on her arrival, that a judge in her new town was abandoned by his wife after reading one of Nora’s books.
The judge had dug into her history and discovers that apparently, Nora is still married. She learns that even after exchanging their wedding rings, her husband Torvald never divorced her, keeping her “Nora Helmer” in the eyes of the law.
For the past 15 years, Nora lived as if she was single, without attention to laws for married women, signing contracts without her husband’s permission, and sleeping around at will. The judge threatens to out her as married unless she publishes a letter apologizing for her writings, so Nora finds herself once again at the mercy of the husband to whom she was certain she’d never return. She needs her husband to file the divorce so she can hang on to her new, successful career. Unlike men, women needed a demonstrable reason to divorce their husbands.
She was willing to bribe the ever-faithful Anne Marie to abandon Torvald. Nora explains that that offer is not conditional—she would give her the money just for leaving, not for her help, in a scene that couldn’t decide if it was praising a woman’s independence, or just Nora’s own manipulation. Nora waited impatiently for an answer and was met simply with a quiet, reserved “no.”
It’s difficult to describe this “sequel”—with characters in 19th-century garb who curse with the intensity of accidentally sending a screenshot of an ex’s conversation to said ex—as feminist, or for that matter, as a critique of 2019 feminism. What occurs instead is a conversation that perhaps Nora should have had over a century ago, and one we should have today.
Hnath’s sequel does not have Ibsen’s domineering Torvald, leaving Nora to initially appear entirely reckless. But when Torvald confronts Nora with lines from her fictionalized books (“they’re mostly about me,” she explained to Anne Marie), the critiques do not seem offensive or rude enough to warrant his anger. Torvald doesn’t offend the audience enough with a blind misogyny to make them abandon him, but he reveals enough of his own meekness to finally allow them to sympathize with Nora in the final scene.
Such an end could’ve been reached 15 years earlier, perhaps, had Nora and Torvald replaced their stubborn absolutism with nuance or compromise. Emmy (Nikki Massoud)—Nora’s now teenage daughter who she tries to win over for the first time in over a decade—appears as strong-willed as her mother but explained, in contrast, that she personally just wanted to “be somebody’s something.”
Emmy refused to be spoken down to by someone who claims to know better than herself, and especially not by the parents whose assumptions from years earlier still define their own lives.
Emmy’s short, poignant perspective demonstrates the compromise Nora and Torvald could have settled on 15 years ago. Nora, Torvald, and the audience, however, all remain unconvinced.
Featured Image Courtesy of Kevin Berne / Huntington Theatre Company