Regional Reviews: Boston
A Doll's House, Part 2
A Doll's House, Part 2, which opened on Broadway in 2017, comes to Boston in a co-production between the Huntington and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, directed by Hnath's frequent collaborator Les Waters. In his continuation of Nora's story, Hnath has chosen to resurrect three figures from her past: her husband Torvald; Anne Marie, the family's nanny (a bit part in Ibsen); and Emmy, her daughter. Her other two children do not appear, and she doesn't express much interest. Nora has come back, proud and unapologetic, to settle one piece of business: she discovered Torvald never filed the divorce papers. Though Nora in this re-imagining is now a rich and successful novelist, she still (as a woman) cannot sign the papers herself. It's one of many reminders of how few rights women could claim in the late 1800s. But this is not merely an evening of winks at how far we've come. It's heartbreaking to hear Nora express hope for women's equality "twenty, thirty years from now"and realize we are still so far from that ideal.
Hnath smartly structures his play like a courtroom drama, where Nora must plead her case as a defendant against the others one by one. She knows how much bargaining power she has, as a woman still legally attached to her husband. As in the original play, Nora has once again been blackmailed by a dishonorable man. She's willing to fight for herself, but she knows her options are limited without the assistance of her long-lost husband. As her visit is prolonged, we discover the degree to which everyone has concealed the truth about Nora's departureand it's this tangled web of lies that places everyone in jeopardy of losing what they have. No matter the outcome, someone will have to pay the price at play's end.
A spin-off to an iconic text runs the risk of becoming an intellectual writing exercise. But Hnath clearly cares about his subjects, across gender, age, and class lines, and he allows them each to tug on our sympathies as they face off against each other. This family has learned how to survive the trauma of Nora's exit. Even Torvald, the oppressive patriarch of Ibsen's story, has become more introspective in this newest chapter. In contrast to the spare one-room set (designed by Andrew Boyce) and period costumes (designed by Annie Smart), Hnath's dialogue is fresh and modern in style. His characters are scrupulous in how they wield language; Anne Marie's sudden profanities are a comic delight because they are so carefully timed. And it's clear in his writing that the Helmers, especially in Mary Beth Fisher's portrayal of Nora, are conscious of how they present themselves to the world.
The four actors each have a distinct style, but they complement each other well as an ensemble. Fisher's Nora sweeps into the room like a movie star, with a bracing frankness that commands attention. Her Nora possesses a fearsome intelligence; you can always see her readying for her next move. Boston favorite Nancy E. Carroll immediately wins us over as the embittered nanny Anne Marie, with a delivery so dry, nearly every word and gesture gets a laugh. She has no interest in making nice, after taking it upon herself to raise the children in Nora's absence. John Judd's Torvald has the gait of an elder statesman, but underneath his well-mannered public persona, we see he's still grappling with what he's lost. And the final member of the quartet, Nikki Massoud's Emmy, shakes everything up when we meet her. She's not what we expect, a young woman who attests that she's special for growing up without a mother. Massoud feels like the most ruthless of these characters, taking down Nora's defenses with a cheerful prosecutorial flair that suggests something to prove. A rejection of how similar she is to her mother, perhaps.
This family has learned to navigate through uncharted territory, and they cope with cutting humor. Hnath's play is often very funny as he ridicules the social mores of the timesome of which naturally sound ridiculous. But Nora's rants against the patriarchy and the institution of marriage are meant for today's ears. In one monologue, she pronounces that marriage should be abolished for destroying women's lives. "In the future," she says, "marriage will be a thing of the past, and those in the future will look back on us, and they'll be in shock... at how stupid we are."
She's right, this is a play about looking back, but the intent isn't to mock. Rather than coming down forcefully on one side or the other, Hnath is happy to talk through the questions generations have asked since Nora slammed that door. The debate continues on.
A Doll's House, Part 2, through February 3, 2019, at Huntington Theatre Company, Huntington Avenue Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave, Boston MA. Tickets can be purchased at the box office, at huntingtontheatre.org, or by phone at 617-266-0800.