The Chicago premiere of A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath, directed by Robin Witt is now in production at Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted Street, Chicago, through March 17, 2019.
Unlike many of the current literary copycat spinoffs that are all the rage, Hnath’s absorbing ninety-minute work is not simply a revisit of the initial classic (A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen, 1879). Part 2 goes its own way, adds bitter humor, writes a book within a story and sheds light on the social mores that existed at the time of the seminal work and still affect men and women today.
Ibsen, credited as “the father of modern realism”, was a critic of the values of his time and place who explored how the legal and actual constraints of marriage influenced intimacy and male/female gender roles. In A Doll’s House, Nora walks out on Torvald and a stultifying marriage, also leaving her 3 children behind and proceeding into a very uncertain future.
In Part 2, Nora walks back in through the door by which she exited, most improbably transformed into a rich successful author, wearing a hilarious dress that resembles nothing so much as Scarlett O’Hara’s gown crafted from her mother’s “portieres”; that was also a false show for a man’s (Rhett Butler’s) benefit. In actuality, she’s in legal trouble and needs Thorvald’s help to secure the divorce she’s discovered he never gave her.
In revealing Nora’s efforts to impress, indoctrinate and manipulate her husband, his housekeeper (who incidentally, was Nora’s former nanny and got stuck raising her kids when she walked out), and her about-to-be married daughter, Hnath takes the original exploration further. We can see the emotional impact of an abrupt walk-out on those left behind, the personal toll struggles to conform can take on a personality, and how difficult it can be to share with honesty.
While the characters in Part 2 are nominally the same as in the first incarnation, the gut-punch of Nora’s leaving has been profound; it’s not just 15 years that have passed. The diminished husband is frightened that he still loves and wants her but doesn’t “know” her; the child is infused with self-contained fury; the nanny is locked into her life of privation and devotion. And what of Nora? In the end, the trip back into the life she left behind opens her eyes to what she really needs to do to achieve self actualization on a higher level-and the journey continues.
Strategically directed by Witt, who allows/encourages each character to emerge fully and in turn, this is a multi-dimensional script authored by Hnath, featuring a terrific cast: Celeste M. Cooper is breathtaking as the emotionally contained Emmy; Sandra Marquez takes the audience on a woman’s journey of enlightenment of the self; and Yasen Peyankov is nothing short of fascinating as he reveals layer after layer of his soul; with Barbara E. Robertson, who stole every scene as Anne Marie.
Thanks to the great production team including Courtney O’Neill, scenic designer, who gave us a spare set with a huge door; is it the entry to perception?; Izumi Inaba for period-centric costume designs with a sense of humor; Christine Binder, lighting designer, for simply lighting the way; Thomas Dixon, sound designer, for believable ambience; and Gigi Buffington, Company Voice and Text Coach, for those subtle Norwegian accents, particularly delicious in Thorvald.
For information and tickets to all the great performances at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, go to www.steppenwolf.org
All photos by Michael Brosilow