- Courtesy Of Hubert Schriebl
- Lizbeth Mackay (left) and Kathleen McNenny
Symmetry: A circle of a floor and a square of a wall. In that otherwise blank wall is an ornate wooden door. Nora knocks, and the door she slammed when leaving her bourgeois marriage 15 years earlier opens. In Weston Playhouse's production of A Doll's House, Part 2, the play's beautiful geometry reveals itself in the balance of comedy and drama, and in the equal merits of arguments from four complex characters.
The play is not so much a sequel to Henrik Ibsen's 1879 A Doll's House as a fresh contemplation of how marriage limits independence yet offers vital, if difficult, human connection. Lucas Hnath's smart, funny and spellbinding 2017 play is a series of two-person conversations in which Nora speaks with the nanny who raised her children; her husband, Torvald; and her daughter, Emmy.
The play honors Ibsen's characters, but Hnath shifts the style from Ibsen's then-groundbreaking realism to modern abstraction and wraps 19th-century circumstances in contemporary dialogue. Seeing Nora and Torvald in a new playwright's hands suggests that Ibsen's proto-feminist statement still ripples through our culture. In a potent juxtaposition, they speak in Hnath's lean vernacular while wearing period costumes.
The format is also a contrast of old and new. Ibsen's play is in three acts and runs two and half hours. Hnath's is in the contemporary 90-minute, intermission-free style. Ibsen was criticizing the cultural norms of his day; Hnath doesn't nudge us forward but ponders where we are by looking backward. Viewers need not be familiar with Ibsen to enjoy this taut, emotional piece.
As Hnath imagines it, after walking out on her family, Nora has built a good life, writing popular novels under a pseudonym. Now she's discovered a serious piece of unfinished business: Torvald never obtained a divorce. That destroys Nora's financial freedom and puts her at some personal risk. She's come back to finish her exit.
But nanny Anne Marie, who remains a household servant, doesn't accept Nora's views on marriage and is not going to help her manipulate Torvald into getting that divorce. Nora is not only proud of her independence but encourages other women to secure theirs. To Torvald, that amounts to running away, refusing to try to repair a marriage and meet the demands of a relationship. Nineteen-year-old Emmy is eager to be married and craves the comfort of being held, being possessed. Nora winces to hear it.
All these points of view are made equally compelling. Torvald can see that something in the marriage was wrong. But what should replace it?
This production brings a strong script to life with performances built on keen understatement. Director Mary B. Robinson shows a superb command of the play's balance, letting each idea emerge with the strength to challenge viewers. And she gives the play's humor a prominent place.
As Nora, Kathleen McNenny is passionate and articulate enough to be persuasive. But if Nora's ideas can convince the audience, they can't sway the other characters. McNenny embodies all the strength we imagine Ibsen's character was seeking when she boldly walked out. Now, when McNenny reenacts the craven way the married Nora used to flirt when asking Torvald for money, we see her shrink into a frailer person. Showing off her fine clothes, this Nora doesn't expect that the wounds her return will open in others will affect her, too. But they do.
Boyd Gaines, McNenny's real-life husband, plays Torvald. Gaines portrays him with an exquisite touch of pain, his strong eyebrows hooding wounded eyes. He walks with a slight stoop for age but a prickly carriage, striving to maintain his posture just as he does his position in society. He waits to speak but knows he'll be heard, imperious by habit. Gaines gives Torvald a tremor to contrast with Nora's firm energy. She appears the braver of the two, until Torvald risks much more than Nora had believed he could.
As Emmy, Margo Seibert is youthful and confident. She makes Emmy too good-natured to fiercely oppose Nora, but disagree she can. When Emmy comes up with what she thinks is a fine solution to Nora's problem, Seibert shows how proud she is of her own cleverness. Nora speaks to only one of her grown-up children and learns that this young woman has no need of her.
Lizbeth Mackay plays Anne Marie with a gentle physical sag in her movement. She's showing age, but she's also letting Nora — and the audience — underestimate her. Anne Marie has the play's most directly comic moments, and Mackay tucks them as closely as she curls her handkerchief in tight, the better to let the humor bloom on its own. That admirable restraint also serves her in dramatic exchanges. She is riveting to watch as she moves from tenderness to anger to understanding.
Staged in Weston's new, intimate three-quarter-round theater, the play has the quality of chamber music. Scenic designer Jason Simms creates an open space stripped of ornament and comfort. The round wood floor places the actors in a circle; it fulfills Hnath's interest in verbal exchanges that play like two boxers sparring. The back wall is covered in what appears to be gray flannel, lending softness to an otherwise harshly empty space.
Centered on the wall is a paneled wooden door, the only detail of Nora's house needed to tell her story. In a powerful, otherworldly touch, lighting designer Ann G. Wrightson projects a thin, glowing light around the doorframe before the show begins.
The austere space adds an abstract quality to the dialogue, stripping the conversation down to elemental truths. It's a proving ground, a laboratory in which ideas can be tested. The play's ending doesn't fix marriage or prove that a good one is impossible. It shows how opposition is a bond in itself, and a cathartic one.