By Karen Isaacs
Authors have, for decades, attempted to write sequels to classic works. It’s tricky business with many questions that need answering. Should a sequel be done? After all, if the original author wanted to do one, he or she would have. Do you try to emulate the original author’s voice? How do you determine what does happen? Should it be what seems most logical for the feel and the period of the original work? The period when the sequel is written?
A Doll’s House – Part 2 by Lucas Hnath has attempted to tell us what has happened to Nora, Torvald and the other characters in Ibsen’s classic play. It is set 15 years after the famous door slam.
If you don’t recall the original play, it is a multi-layered play about Nora and Helmar Torvald over the Christmas holiday in 1879, Norway. A secret that Nora has been concealing from Helmar comes to light which causes her to look at herself and her marriage in a new light. This results in her leaving both her husband and her three young children with the famous door slam that is said to have reverberated throughout the world.
Scholars have debated Nora’s action and the reasons behind it. In the course of the play, Ibsen raises a number of issues that go well beyond those of the rights of women and married women in particular. Depending on which of these multiple issues you focus on, your view of Nora’s choices will vary and so will your sense of what might have happened to her and those she left behind.
Hnath focuses on just four characters: Nora; her husband, Torvald; the nurse-maid Anne Marie; and the daughter she left behind, Emmy.
Nora returns to the same apartment that she had left after having contacted Anne Marie. No one is home except Anne Marie. It seems that Nora has a problem. She has assumed that Torvald divorced her after she left. Therefore she has lived and acted as a single woman, signing contracts and having relationships, all of which would be possible illegal for a married woman to do without her husband’s permission.
She has also become a writer whose works argue that marriage is oppressive to women; she has become a feminist whose works are both well-known and generate angry reactions. Apparently, a local judge has been looking into Nora’s past after his wife took her message to heart and left him. Thus, the reason for the visit.
During the course of the play all four of the characters get their say. The family had presumed Nora dead; after all they had neither heard from or of her in the years since. Each harbors resentments – to her and she to them. She doesn’t understand why Helmar never got the divorce which was much, much easier for a husband to attain. Anne Marie spent years picking up the pieces Nora left behind – caring and raising her three children. The two boys are out of the house, but Emmy the youngest is still at home and resents missing out on a mother. Torvald resents that Nora never allowed him and them as a couple to work through the problems she saw in the marriage.
Hnath and director Sam Gold has combined 19th century sets (though very bare) and costumes, with 21st century language (the F-bomb and others go off from all the characters) as well as interesting body language choices for Nora. The frankness of the discussions seems inappropriate for the late 19th century.
No matter how you react to the play and Hnath’s view of Nora – and I will discuss my reactions – you will be thrilled by the performances, even if you disagree with how the characters are written. Laurie Metcalf as Nora, Jane Hoydyshell as Anne Marie, Chris Cooper as Torvald and Condola Rashad as Emmy are all magnificent.
But, despite how good they are, for me Hnath took the wrong track with his play. First of all it is too comedic in both writing and direction. He has created a Nora that is totally self-centered which is how many students view her when they first read the play. But if you explore Ibsen’s themes more thoroughly, I don’t think you can see her in that one-dimensional light. Nora is a more complex person that just a self-centered, self-involved individual. Leaving her family was for multiple reasons.
By going for the laughs – a gentleman sitting next to me was loudly guffawing through much of the play – he has detracted from what might have been a very interesting discussion of how a woman, relatively sheltered and unaware of how society worked, survived and prospered. How did others react to her? What stumbles occurred along the way? Did she have any regrets or was she totally unintrospective.
None of these are answered and while A Doll’s House, Part II is an enjoyable evening particularly because of the fine acting, it could have been so much more. Hnath seems to rely too much on our knowledge of the play and our viewpoint of it.
A Doll’s House – Part II is at the Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th Street through July 23. For tickets, contact Telecharge.