Hnath argues all sides in ‘A Doll’s House, Part Two’ at Farmers Alley
KALAMAZOO, Mich.–When the door slammed at the end of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, the sound echoed across the world the same way the first shot at Lexington and Concord did a century earlier.
It was a sound that emboldened feminist action and thought. Yes, a woman in a seemingly “good” marriage—one without physical abuse or adultery—could walk out and divorce her husband. Yes, a woman could reject being a man’s plaything and seek to be her own person.
It heralded a change in the world and in feminist thought.
But what has that change wrought?
It is that question which Lucas Hnath addresses in his 2017 “sequel,” A Doll’s House Part 2, which Farmer’s Alley is currently producing, directed by D. Terry Williams.
The Farmer’s Alley production opens on a stark stage with a large door upstage center that has a spotlight illuminating it. It is the fifth of an otherwise four-person show made up of Nora, Torvald, Ann-Marie and Emmy.
Nora and Torvald were the central characters of the original Ibsen show, a husband and wife with three young children. The three-act classic drama reveals a highly patriarchal relationship in which a condescending Torvald views his wife as an empty-headed child who will always be dependent on him, even in the face of evidence that she quietly took action to help save his life and promote the well-being of the family.
In the modern sequel, Nora has returned 15 years later, 15 years in which she had zero communication with her family. Played by Elizabeth Terrel, Nora is older, self-assured and articulate. Gone are all signs of childishness of dependency. She meets with Ann-Marie, the nanny who raised her and then once she left, raised her children. She’s back because she needs something from Tovald.
Terrel does a beautiful job of adding layers of complexity to Nora. She gives us a reason to sympathize with her, even as the play strips away that which made her a heroine and leaves her as a deeply flawed human being who is uncertainly dealing with the consequences and reverberations of her unconventional decisions and actions. Terrel digs deeply into her character, one who is substantially different from the classic original. She instills in her a self-assurance that is still capable of being shaken when faced with others who would challenge her world view and incriminate her actions.
Paul Stroili plays a Torvald that is world’s away from the original antagonist. Hneth writes a Torvald that is sympathetic and Stolli captures that well. He shows the man’s vulnerabilities and how deeply he was hurt not only by the loss of his wife, but by the way he was perceived and the worst light cast upon his actions and words. He subtly creates a man who is more than just a character, he is a voice that is trying to find out who men are supposed to be in a feminist ideology and what possible options they have to “get it right.”
Zoe Vonder Haar has the challenging job of helping to set the play in 1894 and then making it jump out of the stream of time to become ageless and relevant. She does this by originally presenting her character as a near-stereotype, the faithful servant who is always willing to help her employers and does whatever they ask. She then shows that her obedience has limits and her language evolves to a very modern form of speech, which all the other characters soon follow.
The final character is one who was too young to make it on stage in the original but is now a young adult. Arizsia Staton is Tovald and Nora’s daughter, Emmy. Like her mother, she is eminently self-assured. Anne-Marie said she raised her the way she raised Nora and there are similarities between the two, but she is also a child whose life and thoughts have been shaped by divorce and being raised in a single-parent home.
Where A Doll’s House, Part Two succeeds is in its unflinching look at what Nora’s choice—and the choice of many people after her—really means. Divorce, it turns out, doesn’t just affect the two spouses. It ripples out to the entire family, friends and community. It changes everyone’s lives in sometimes unexpected ways.
Once again, the play is filled with blackmail, cover-ups, lies and people whose attempts to communicate continually fail. Every character gets a monologue (some more than others) that sounds convincing. They each have a worldview that cannot be easily dismissed.
The play doesn’t just ask what happens to this particular group of people 15 years later, but how have our interpersonal relationships changed 115 years later. It is a dramatic and theatrical questioning of marriage, divorce and how well-meaning people can still manage to it all wrong.
Nora is the voice that rejects all marriage as bondage, something that destroys love and traps people in relationships where the way people change mean you have vowed to stay with a person who is no longer the person you married.
Torvald is in a no-win situation where no matter what he does, it is interpreted as being chauvinistic. In fact, there are moments that Hneth writes it to such an extreme that he comes across as a man frustrated with modern feminism and unwilling to acknowledge the reality of mansplaining or sexism. He seems sometimes to think that women are just being unreasonable in wanting to be viewed as fully human.
But most of the time Hneth is more balanced. No, Nora is no longer the hero and Tovald is no longer the villain. Hneth lets each side of the argument state their case before he then answers those arguments with the other side and why people would reject those audiences. He also throws in difficult questions such as at what point is a woman forced into telling lies because the male-dominated society gives her impossible options to survive truthfully.
A Doll’s House, Part Two, like Hnath’s other play The Christians, presents unconventional but newly popular ideas and then challenges whether they are really as progressive as they seem and how change can tear society apart. Ideas have consequences and the world must bear those consequences even if the change is necessary.
Williams keeps his actors tightly focused on a cohesive vision. He ensures that emotions start out tightly controlled and build to appropriate climaxes. His blocking is highly intentional, each facing and distance fraught with symbolism and meaning.
Kathryn Wagner decks her characters with costumes that communicate their status and their world-view. Nora’s bold colors and fancy dress (with a wonderful hat) present her as someone who has benefitted from her new life. Meanwhile Dan Guyette’s nearly empty set symbolizes all that is stripped away when people are torn asunder and how we attempt to destroy memory as we become isolated nomads.
Ibsen purists may balk at this presentation, for the characters are only Ibsen’s in name. They speak with the knowledge of a century’s worth of change from when the original play took place. Then again, those same purists may appreciate the fresh new look brought to Ibsen’s classic, one that engages deeply the ideas it presented and shows how the choices made in the original play out on a much wider, universal scale.
Bottom Line: Part Two of Ibsen’s Doll’s House is as thought provoking as the original.