“A Doll’s House,” by immortal dramatist Henrik Ibsen, sent shock waves through strait-laced, late-19th Century European society by having an oppressed mother of two leave her family as the curtain came down, leaving audiences of the time in disbelief.
“A Doll’s House Part 2” (ADH2) by Lucas Hnath imagines what might happen if Nora returned 15 years later. The one-act play (without intermission) can be seen through Nov. 2 in Armonk. It is being presented by Hudson Stage at North Castle Library’s Whippoorwill Hall Theatre. (For ticket information: A Doll’s House 2—Brown Paper Tickets).
Mr. Hnath’s imaginative and provocative creation is both a celebration of womanhood and a consideration of victimhood. It is wrought with the rigor of a blacksmith setting off sparks.
What resonates with people like me in this Tony-winning 2017 play is the writer’s timely agenda—and obvious facility—in challenging hoary assumptions about stubbornly persistent social standards that were morally benighted 140 years ago when Ibsen unleashed Nora on an unsuspecting world. Call it a male-dominated world’s shotgun marriage to misogyny. That the divorce is long overdue is but one of Lucas Hnath’s many musings on the subject.
I’m a firm believer that any open-minded, curious individual can honestly present two or more sides of almost any issue without prejudice. Mr. Hnath is one of those persons. He nimbly finds several ways to hypothesize the consequences—15 years hence—of Nora’s derring-do.
FACT MEETS TRUTH
What I took away from his entertaining exercise is that, while facts may not be arguable, we humans since time began love to argue, with hidebound, defensive ferocity, over what each of us sees as objective “truth.” You know -- that word we like to use as a convenient euphemism to elevate -- or cloak -- what in fact is a wholly subjective “opinion.”
In ADH2, there are a lot of truths flying across the stage, in every direction, not only between Nora (Denise Bessette) and Torvald (Kurt Rhoades), but among their now-adult daughter Emmy (Rachel Kent) and housekeeper Anne Marie (Mary Stout).
Nora’s “facts” here are that she’s become a prominent author of books that encourage women to assert their independence, even if it means leaving their husband.
Nora’s “truth” here is that Torvald owes her for his years of treating her like chattel instead of as a life partner with free will.
Torvald’s “facts” here are that he had to raise their children without a mother (with live-in nanny Anne Marie sacrificing the care of her own child to serve as Nora’s surrogate); and that he never filed for divorce from Nora, which now is causing her potential legal trouble that could undermine her lucrative literary career, compelling her to seek Torvald’s help.
Torvald’s “truth” here is that he owes Nora nothing, not even an apology; she chose to leave him and their kids. In his mind,
Nora, far from being an innocent victim, manipulated and mocked him during their marriage.
This is not to say some of the aforementioned “truths” don’t evolve before the curtain falls, but I’m not into spoilers.
WHAT MEN & WOMEN WANT
The playwright gets tremendous mileage from riding Ibsen’s coattails to examine a range of timeless issues that inform how men and women co-exist.
We are reminded how seemingly innocent cat-and-mouse games can quickly ignite nuclear attacks of mutually assured destruction (shades of George and Martha in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”)
Mr. Hnath adroitly and entertainingly presents the four characters’ varied perspectives on the sacrosanct institution of marriage. It all happens so fast, the 90-minute play flew by in what seemed like half that time, a credit to director Margarett Perry and the very skillful cast.
As Nora, Denise Bessette (co-producer of Hudson Stage) smoothly journeys through a gamut of guises. Her Nora plays victim, role model, blamer, confessor, shamer, survivor. She knows how to hold a stage, in this case a strikingly austere room, designed by David L. Arenault, with but two chairs, walls, and a door (plus cleverly used neon lighting).
Kurt Rhoades brings to Torvald a suitably dour dose of impassive gravitas, joined by a vulnerability and repressed rage on the verge of detonation. He speaks volumes without saying a word. It all adds up to a Bryan Cranston vibe that is the perfect foil for Ms. Bessette’s emancipated, extroverted Nora.
Adding immeasurably to the success of this production is the marvelous (dare I say scene-stealing?) performance of Mary Stout as Anne Marie. Every move she makes, every line she utters is beautifully articulated for maximum effect, to the delight of the audience. She is an actor’s actor.
I was intrigued by Rachel Kent’s take on Emmy, Nora and Torvald’s daughter. She toys mischievously with her absentee mother, affecting a decidedly smug demeanor, replete with highly animated facial expressions that signaled mock interest, overlaid with thinly-disguised disdain.
I recommend this play highly, with the cautionary note that couples whose relationship might be on less-than-firma terra will either have a lot to talk about as they leave the theater -- or won’t be talking at all, at least for a little while, until they can process the shock of recognition that just played out in front of them.
In seeing A Doll’s House Part 2, we are moved to assess our own treatment of a partner. Are we kind or cruel? Are we considerate or self-serving? Are we content or complacent?
Mr. Hnath succeeds with artful exuberance in doing what any quality playwright is obliged to do: he makes us dig deep to question our own values and behavior. As half of a relationship, just what kind of human being am I being?
There may not be any question in life more difficult than that to answer with complete candor and humility.