Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of Bloomsday
Society has made great strides since Nora shut that door. In the United Statesthough we have yet to achieve parity in salaries, have not had a woman elected as president, and do not yet have an Equal Rights Amendmentfar more opportunities are open to women, including the opportunity to walk out that door. Today it would hardly be a novelty for a woman to leave a marriage that suffocated her very being. Of course, such leaving-taking is not easy, and many women, as well as men, who take that path often struggle financially, socially and emotionally.
In 2017, Lucas Hnath spun the clock back on Nora Helmer, not to 1879, but fifteen years later, to 1894, in A Doll's House, Part 2. Hnath's conceit is, that after fifteen years, events force Nora to return to the staid house she thought she had left for good. The play was greeting with acclaim, and Laurie Metcalf earned a Tony Award for her portrayal on Broadway of the middle-aged Nora, returned for the first time in all those years, to settle some unfinished business. Since then, it has become among the most often produced plays in regional theater. Thankfully, Jungle Theater is now, finally, giving the play its Minnesota premiere, in an outstanding production with a quartet of actors who deliver equally superb work.
Director Joanie Schultz focuses on the distinct dynamics between Nora and each of the play's other three characters: Anne Marie, the nanny who stayed on to raise Nora's three young children after her defection; Emmy, the youngest of those children, now a poised young lady; and Torvald, who has remained single and badly bruised. Schultz keeps a keen bead on Nora's determined efforts to negotiate through the wreckage of those relationships to obtain something she badly needs: a divorce.
Nora states early in the play that when she left fifteen years before, after she and Torvald returned their wedding rings to one another, there was an understanding that they would divorce, to make their separation complete and final. Looking back at Ibsen's text, there is no use of the word divorce, nor any agreement on Torvald's part to anything. When he tells Nora that he forbids her to leave, she quite correctly retorts that there is no longer any use in him forbidding her anything. When she verbally releases him from any obligation, and says that she will behave as if also so released, he says nothing in reply. Nonetheless, Nora proceeded for all these years believing that Torvald had made their break legal. She has behaved in ways that are prohibited for a married woman, both in personal and business matters, and now someone with knowledge of her marital status is trying to blackmail her. Then, as now, the legal strings don't matter until they do.
Torvald has his own reasonsaside from his still shattered pride, and, if we can believe him, broken heartfor denying her this. She tries to enlist Anne Marie, who was her own nanny, like a mother to her, and then stayed on with Torvald to raise the children, to help make her case. Anne Marie, though, is embittered by her experience and will have nowhere to go if Torvald turns her out. She urges Nora to appeal to her daughter's support. Emmy has no recollection of her mother. She seems to have grown up to be quite cool, self-possessed, and intent on her future. With schemes plotted and abandoned, lies invented to cover lies, and the reality of each character positioned to put their own needs first, there is little evidence that this will go well.
And yet, Hnath has constructed the play with such intrigue and intelligence that we hang on to every move, wondering what, against the odds, will save the dayor if the day will be saved at all. He also smartly devised a feasible, if thinly told, story of how Nora, after leaving Torvald's house with nothing to her name, eventually became extremely successful. Her journey provides a device through which Torvald is able to understand, at last, the epiphany that prompted her to leave. It may be a stretch to believe Torvald would even at this point recognize his failings in the context of society, but it at least offers the possibility of such a thing, and raises another question: what to do about it.
Christina Baldwin strikingly presents a strong-willed, self-actualized Nora, who has managed against a host of social barriers to not only survive, but to thrive as an independent woman. She admits to what it has cost her, notably her children, but seems to have adapted in such a healthy way that she is able to let her losses go, buoyed by all she has gained. Her greatest frustration is that she has not yet seen the world change to allow all women to live like her; yet she is confident that day is near, and will do her part to make it so. It might be hard to believe that Nora could have prevailed as she has, and that she chose to absent herself completely from her children, yet Baldwin's sense of resolve makes it ring true.
Steven Epp is brilliantly cast as Torvald. He combines Torvald's haughtiness with a genuine sense of the anguish he has suffered, without having to reconcile how much of that is a true personal loss and how much is the humiliation of being pushed outside of society's rigid norms. At the end, attempting to redeem himself, he allows some cracks in his male armor, and Epp reveals how that terrifies him.
The indispensable Angela Timberman is wonderfully flinty as Anne Marie, a tad subject to sentiment but quick to regain her stiff spine and consider her own best interests, mixing deadpan humor with venom. Megan Burns is peachy smooth as Emmy, poised and polished, as pleasant as society warrants of its young ladies, with no apologies for keeping her sights on her own end game. But when she and her mother are awkwardly getting to know each other, and Nora recollects an endearing trait of each of Emmy's older brothers but is unable to call up anything about Emmy, Burns lets us see that there is a streak of hurt beneath her placid face. Splendid work.
Mathew J. Lefebvre dresses the characters in stunning period costumes, with Nora's gown in a vibrant plum fabric that speaks to both financial success and her acquired boldness. Andrea Moriarity's wigs give each of the female characters a distinctive bearing. Chelsea M. Warren provides the play a handsome stage design with rounded-off frames setting off the open stage, receding to the rear wall where the omnipresent door awaits passage.
What, however, is the point of the Star Wars-like text scrawl at the top of the show, summing up where A Doll's House left off? The play's dialogue conveys to the rare theatergoer who walks into A Doll's House, Part 2 without knowing anything about the original A Doll's House with sufficient backstory. At any rate, the text is impossible to read owing to the projected images being broken up by those receding frames. Further, bold title cards introducing each character feel like a goofy effort to make the play look modern, like a shadow image of Six. The less said about the music, with indecipherable lyrics that are clearly female empowerment anthems, the better. If A Doll's House was modern long before its time, A Doll's House, Part 2 is certainly of the moment, dealing with aspirations and disillusionment that feel quite contemporary and are played as such by a superb cast. While smaller ticksonce she sheds her jacket, we see a tattoo on Nora's forearm, for instancetickle the audience to see her as a woman of today, the aggressive music and projections feel like cheap effects to tell us, rather than reveal to us, how relevant a play this is.
Those are distractions from what is otherwise a thoughtful play that avoids easy or sentimental solutions, and a pulsating production. A Doll's House, Part 2 poses one hypothetical answer to the question audience members and scholars have asked about for decades after that door slams: What now? Of course, there are an infinite number of other possible answers, so A Doll's House, Part 2 cannot be thought of as the definitive response. It has fared far better than the 1982 Broadway musical A Doll's Life, which closed five performances after opening night, despite a score by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and direction by Hal Prince.
The real asset in having a well-wrought answer to that burning question, up on stage, is that it prompts yet another question: And now? There is no sense of finality about the closing moments of this play. Nora and Torvald have survived this harrowing encounter. What lies ahead now for each of them? A Doll's House, Part 2 does not settle things, once and for all. Rather, it opens the gates for more questions, affirming that in both our own personal growth and in the movement of society toward greater justice and opportunity, doors may close but need not ever be sealed. There is always another question to be asked. Who will heed the call to draft A Doll's House, Part 3? Anyone?
A Doll's House, Part 2 runs through February 23, 2020, at the Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $40.00 - $50.00. Seniors (60+) and students with ID, $5.00 discount. Special Friday night discounts: patrons under age 30 and residents of zip code 55408, $25.00; high school and college students (with valid ID), $20.00. Rush tickets: unsold seats, if available, two hours before performance, $20.00 - $30.00. For tickets and information, please call 612-822-7073 or visit www.jungletheater.com.
Playwright: Lucas Hnath; Director: Joanie Schultz; Scenic Design: Chelsea M. Warren; Costume Design: Matthew J. Lefebvre; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Sound Design: Sean Healey; Hair and Wig Design: Andrea Moriarity; Properties: John Novak; Technical Director: Matthew Erkel; Production Manager: Matthew Early; Stage Manager: D. Marie Long.
Cast: Christina Baldwin (Nora), Megan Burns (Emmy), Steven Epp (Torvald), Angela Timberman (Anne Marie).