Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

A Doll's House, Part 2
Novato Theater Company
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's review of Monument, or Four Sisters (A Sloth Play)

Shirley Nilsen Hall and Alison Peltz
Photo by Jere Torkelsen
When the door first slammed on opening night of Henrik Ibsen's now-classic A Doll's House, it seemed to set the theatrical world on fire. A woman seeking independence by leaving her husband and three children? It was a sort of blasphemy in the context of 19th century mores and the rigid roles into which women were pigeon-holed.

More than 100 years later, along comes playwright Lucas Hnath, who imagines what might have happened to the character of Nora Helmer 15 years after she walked out on her family. A Doll's House, Part 2, currently running at Novato Theater Company, begins when Nora returns to the home she left and knocks on the same door she so dramatically slammed.

A Doll's House, Part 2 is a brilliant, thrilling, often hysterically funny exploration not simply of Nora's life after she left her husband Torvald, but a story of feminism, the restraints women have endured, the tug of tradition and familiarity, and much, much more. As the play opens, Nora is as focused as ever on her own desires, proudly, almost haughtily reveling in the success she has made of herself. Now a rich and successful woman (as Ibsen's inspiration for the character of Nora, Laura Kieler, became), she finds herself once again facing a scandal involving bureaucracy and paperwork (recalling the forgery she pulled off in A Doll's House) and needs Torvald's help. Nora has not come back to beg forgiveness, but only to complete her escape. "Marriage," she says, "is cruel and it destroys women's lives."

Nora Helmer isn't an easy character to like, despite her intelligence, resourcefulness and charm. As played by Alison Peltz, Nora is a bit of a schemer, self-impressed, and in a hurry to move on in the new life she has created for herself. At first, she seems to want to erase the sins of her past, but is forced first by housemaid Anne Marie (Shirley Nilsen Hall) and then by Torvald (Mark Clark) to face up to the chaos the abandonment of her family created.

While attempting 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. Shirley Nilsen Hall is wonderful in this role, revealing a fully developed character with the simplest of motions: polishing a vase, removing a shoe to massage a sore foot, or glancing about to see what task she must accomplish next. Anne-Marie is probably the saddest character of A Doll's House, Part 2, having sacrificed a life of her own to care for Torvald and the three children Nora left behind, and Hall's face perfectly reflects the dolor of her character. Even when Nora is off on a rant of what she suffered after her sudden departure, my attention kept being drawn back to Hall because of the delight of watching her delicate, heartfelt performance.

As delightful as Hall's performance is, it's easily matched by Mark Clark, who perfectly inhabits Torvald as imagined by playwright Hnath. He has a marvelous physicality that meshes precisely with his character. The pain and confusion Torvald feels is wonderfully expressed by Clark's precise, organic performance; he carries himself like a man who has been seriously wounded but stoically refuses to let the pain overwhelm him. Clark never comes off as an actor playing a role, but loses himself so completely in playing Torvald that no gesture, no pause, no line reading ever feels anything but perfectly natural. As Emmy, Nora and Torvald's now-grown daughter, Jannely Calmell gives a sneakily wonderful performance, playing Emmy as a sort of wise innocent (as oxymoronic as that sounds) who is hip to Nora's attempts at manipulation.

Sadly, Alison Peltz's take on Nora seems out of tune–not only with her scene partners, but also with Hnath's imagining of Nora as an independent and powerful woman. Peltz rushes her lines, and director Gillian Eichenberger has her flitting around the stage, rarely resting in one place for more than a beat or two. She never seems to be truly present, but hurries through each moment as if her Nora can't wait for whatever comes next. It's a frenetic performance that feels unmoored from the character she is playing. Peltz does finally create some moments of stillness during the last scenes of the play, and I found myself wondering where this calm, self-assured woman had been for the first 80 minutes.

Michael Walraven's set is clean and elegant, consisting primarily of a white wall accented with architectural molding, a single upholstered divan (also white), plus a simple bench and a couple of tables. Walraven also added a perfect detail by having two rectangles painted in a slightly darker shade to indicate that framed artwork had been removed and the walls are slightly less faded where the art once hung. It's a subtle yet powerful reminder that something important is missing from the house. But lighting designer Frank Sarubbi specifies a couple of odd cues that only call attention to themselves and do nothing to add to the mood of the scenes in which they take place.

Despite a frenzied performance from Peltz and those odd dimmings of the lights, Novato Theater Company is to be congratulated for a marvelous production of which North Bay residents can rightfully be proud.

A Doll's House, Part 2 runs through June 12, 2022, at the Novato Theater Company, 5420 Nave Drive, Novato CA. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. There will be an ASL interpreted performance on June 5. Tickets are $27 general and $15 for those under 18. For tickets and information, please visit or call 415-883-4498.