- Courtesy Of Kate Sasvari
- Patti Perkins and Robynn Rodriguez
The audience arrives to find a commanding set. A large, carved wooden door stands in a tall, blank wall. Above, an artificial skylight bathes the stage in silky, shadowless light. Below, a wood-plank floor the width of the stage narrows toward the back wall, suggesting receding perspective. It looks like a museum, and the art on display will be the characters of Henrik Ibsen as reimagined by playwright Lucas Hnath in A Doll's House, Part 2.
Northern Stage opens its season with an exceptionally well-acted production of Hnath's 2017 play, which takes up Nora's story 15 years after she left her husband and children.
When A Doll's House premiered in 1879, it provoked immediate controversy. At a time when women were supposed to be entirely subservient to husbands or fathers, Ibsen created a character who repudiated the limitations of that role.
In Hnath's play, Nora knocks on the door she once slammed shut. Her return home is a complicated reunion that revisits the challenges of marriage. Written in sharp, contemporary language but performed in period dress, the play pits Nora against the gender obstacles of the 19th century for an audience with today's notions of male-female dynamics.
Since she left her family, Nora has been advocating that women throw off the constraints of marriage. Soon, she believes, society will evolve past husbands ruling wives. And she has her followers. But now she's come home with an urgent problem. Torvald, the husband she left, never obtained a divorce, which means she's been committing fraud by handling financial affairs on her own.
Nora's future is at stake, legally and philosophically. In five confrontational scenes, she attempts to convince her old nanny, her 19-year-old daughter and Torvald that she should be free of marriage. All four characters make compelling arguments about gender roles, and the play's beauty is the equal weight Hnath gives each point of view.
Nora's daughter, Emmy, is looking forward to being wed. The aging nanny, Anne Marie, believes children are worth the sacrifice, including the children Nora left behind for her to raise. And Torvald says that whatever problems a marriage may have, running away from it won't solve them.
Director Peter Hackett lets Hnath's humor percolate up just often enough to spice the seriousness of the situation. The characters' conflicts are intellectual, but Hackett emphasizes their emotional impact. It's a play of speeches, and they come alive because the actors listen closely enough to let them sting.
As Nora, Robynn Rodriguez creates a character with some of the original Nora's charm peeking through. Ibsen's Nora starts out silly and flirtatious, infantilized by her husband as his "little squirrel." In the end, Nora rejects the role, but it's based on a warmth that Rodriguez now confidently radiates, with a soothing voice and a gaze that imparts her interest in others. She is bursting with certainty about her rejection of marriage, and Rodriguez makes Nora a crusader at ease with herself.
Making Nora warm is an acting choice that shifts the play from an abstract diatribe to a compassionate search for meaning in human relationships. Nora has a powerful argument to make about the need for society to reject marriage and allow women independence. Rodriguez makes it with all due fire but adds the crucial touch of caring how her listeners react. Her ideology sustains her, but the contrary opinions of people she loved can still wound her.
As Torvald, Stephen Lee Anderson moves and speaks with measured clarity. Hackett stages the action so that Torvald first recognizes Nora with his back to the audience. Anderson's startled stillness conveys his reaction better than a facial expression. He appears meek at first, nursing arthritic pain in his knee and standing speechless more than once. As he slowly sheds his armor of silence and rectitude, however, Torvald shows the pain he's buried. Anderson makes Torvald a frail figure gripped with quiet fury.
Patti Perkins, as Anne Marie, enters with a stiff walk. She won't be hurried by anyone and has earned the right to surrender to the demands of age. Perkins gives the character a no-nonsense demeanor that's feisty but never cute. She listens to Nora, suspends judgment for a while, and then holds nothing back. When Anne Marie remembers the trade she had to make between raising Nora's children and her own child, Perkins lets some tears form but maintains a steely edge. Anne Marie may have a bad hip, but she's still strong in all the ways that matter.
As Emmy, Monique St. Cyr has the fire of youth. She moves earnestly, even letting her knees knock as she sits, showing how close she still is to childhood. But her forceful speech demonstrates her maturity. St. Cyr's Emmy is bold enough to lock eyes with Nora and shake her head lightly to show she won't be intimidated — and won't admit that her mother's abandonment hurt her. Emmy's calm defiance is riveting as mother and daughter decide how they want to appear to each other.
Splendid as David L. Arsenault's set design is, Hackett's decision to suggest a museum adds little except a cool visual tone. The emotional strength of the performances engages viewers, while a museum implies distant contemplation. Perhaps Hackett was after that kind of contrast. Arsenault and lighting designer Harold F. Burgess delivered the mood impeccably, but pulling the audience toward critical judgment pushes it away from the play's psychological core.
Ibsen's play presents a marriage made intolerable by 19th-century norms that now seem quaintly wrong, but also by gender standards that still appear almost unassailable. Hnath lets us see how far we've come and how intractable gender roles in child-rearing and marriage remain. The play is stuffed with ideas, but this production elevates it past polemics. Powerful acting shows the emotional need from which all four characters' grand ideas spring.