Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Enter Lucas Hnath, author of one of my favorite plays of the past few years, The Christians (which won the Obie and Kesselring Prize), as well as Red Speedo, Isaac's Eye, and Death Tax among others. Hnath decided, after absentmindedly scribbling "A Doll's House, Part 2" on a piece of paper, that he ought to write what might happen if, 15 years later, Nora knocked on that same door she had so dramatically slammed.
Theatre lovers should be very glad he did, for Hnath's A Doll's House, Part 2 is a brilliant, thrilling, often hysterically funny exploration not simply of Nora's life after Torvald (her husband), but of feminism, relationships, individualism, the tug of tradition, mansplaining, and so much more. What's more, Hnath's razor-sharp text is given a nearly perfect staging by the pros at Berkeley Rep, featuring a cast who outshine that of the production I saw in New York, and impeccable direction from Les Waters.
As the play opens, Nora has returned to her house as laser-focused as ever on her own desires. Now a rich and successful woman (as Ibsen's inspiration for Nora, Laura Kieler, became), Nora finds herself in another potential scandal involving bureaucracy and paperwork (recalling the forgery she pulled off in A Doll's House), and needs Torvald's help. Like Michael Corleone in The Godfather, just when she thinks she's out, she gets pulled back in.
As self-centered as Nora is, it's difficult to truly despise her. First of all, Mary Beth Fisher imbues the character with such charm (even if she sometimes wheedles to get what she wants) and intelligence that we almost forgive her the sin of abandoning her children. We are also prone to pardon Nora because Hnath adds dimension and thoughtfulness to her in a way that sheds light on her inner life and helps us empathize with a woman fighting against the legal and social strictures of 19th century Norway. Hnath's Nora may be misguided in her optimism, but she nonetheless has developed a sense of self-worth and purpose that Ibsen's Nora was only beginning to discover.
Drawn back into her old life, Nora at first attempts to scrub away the sins of her past, but is forced first by Anne Marie (Nancy E. Carroll) and then by Torvald (John Judd) to face up to the chaos her selfishness created in the family she left behind. At one point, when Nora is trying to explain or justify her actions, Anne Marie cuts through Nora's pretense and rationalizations with a simple, but profane, outburst that has become one of the show's signature lines.
As Anne Marie, Nancy E. Carroll is marvelously stillexerting an almost gravitational pull. Nora flits and paces and teases and manipulates, while Anne Marie remains a solid celestial body around which Nora orbits. Though Mary Beth Fisher's Nora is almost always in motion, and her gestures and subtle shifts of expression are marvelously comic and touching in turn, my eye kept being drawn back to Carroll's Anne Marie, waiting for her fuse to finally reach its end. Her icy delivery of the line "well, that's just so nice" lets you know nothing nice at all is going on here.
As daughter Emmy and husband Torvald, Nikki Massoud and John Judd do more than hold their own against these two powerhouse women. Massoud's Emmy is optimistic and perky, but there's something about her that says "serial killer." A wide-eyed naif of a serial killer, but nonetheless a murderer with a sense of righteous vengeance on her mind. Judd's Torvald exhibits a sense of wounded distraction that is all the more powerful when his righteous vengeance is aroused.
Director Les Waters has guided this stellar cast with nothing less than perfect grace. Everything about this production flows with a silky, understated power, like a broad, majestic river with a surface calm that belies its erosive, flooding potency. He has his cast holding back just the right amount and then letting go at just the right moments, like a jockey astride a Triple Crown-winning thoroughbred waiting until the home stretch to let loose the reins. The comic (and dramatic) timing is never off, not even by a millisecond.
The set Andrew Boyce has created is likewise elegant and understated, yet imposing in a sort of Scandinavian minimalist way. Bare, pale grey walls are anchored by taupe-colored wainscoting and broad, bleached plank flooring, and dressed with only the most essential items: a console table, two chairs, a coat rack. Likewise, Annie Smart's costumes are gorgeous, regal, and reinforce each character's personality. Several women in the audience gasped (I assume in envy or covetousness) when Nora removed her floor-length overcoat to reveal a stunning yet simple gown. Lighting designer Yi Zhao illuminates it all with a polished subtlety.
There's no need to have seen Ibsen's A Doll's House in order to appreciate the magnificence of what Berkeley Rep has achieved here, though a familiarity with that play will enhance your experience. Whether or not you are an Ibsen fan, if you love theatre, you will be transported by this staggeringly good production. If you're not a theatre fan, this one may convert you.
A Doll's House, Part 2, through October 21, 2018, in the Roda Theatre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Check Berkeley Rep's website for show times, but matinees are at 1:00p.m. Tickets range from $30-$97. Tickets are available online at www.berkeleyrep.org, or by calling the box office at 510-647-2949.