Fifteen years ago, stifled and condescended to, Nora Helmer walked out on husband Torvald and her three children in search of self respect and self knowledge. She entered a world that would have been hostile to her. The heroine that marches back through a forbiddingly enormous portal is wealthy, independent, creative, self confident and sexually liberated. Though actors wear appropriate period costumes (well designed by David Zinn) and legal constraints are accurate, language is contemporary. Go with it; it works.
Nora (Laurie Metcalf) now writes women’s books – under a pseudonym. Her cry for freedom is so convincing that numbers of readers have left their husbands. One abandoned, bitter spouse, a powerful judge, tracks down the author and discovers that she’s still married. (Nora was sure Torvald had, as agreed, divorced her.) Conducting business as a single woman is illegal, misrepresenting herself in print will mean ruin, her behavior if married, has been blatantly immoral. The official threatens exposure unless she publicly apologizes assuring the loss of everything she’s built.
Jayne Houdyshell and Laurie Metcalf
Apparently a one-step request for men, divorce saddles women with an endless burden of reasonable proof. Nora has returned to secure a decree to which she’s sure there can be no objection. If she’s forced to bring suit, both party’s reputations will irreparably suffer. Still, Torvald flatly refuses.
Revolving around the character in lesser and greater orbits are housekeeper Anne Marie (Jayne Houdyshell), a sympathetic confidant in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House who’s stayed on to raise the children and take care of Torvald; grown-up, admirably well adjusted daughter Emmy (Condola Rashad), appealed to as a last resort in hopes of convincing her father to cooperate, and Torvald himself (Chris Cooper) who, still wounded, finds Nora unfathomable.
Chris Cooper and Laurie Metcalf
Playwright Lucas Hnath has utilized the Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House as a starting point/inspiration and spun it into an entertaining tale with social context in two contrasting eras. Nora finds herself caught between a rock and a hard place. Disagreement with Emily about the nature of a woman’s role in marriage puts each choice in context. Characters have no filters. What they think and feel comes out of their mouths with directness that belies the period, but makes whopping good theater. Everyone is multidimensional. Allegiances are complicated. Unpredictable changes become seismic before our eyes. The ending is a shock.
Jayne Houdyshell’s Anne Marie is a whole human being. The character organically shifts from welcoming to protective. She’s watchful, sympathetic, innately funny with opinion and observance, and bone tired. In the hands of a lesser actress, the role could have been played for laughs or subjugated judgment. This artist has understanding and finesse.
Laurie Metcalf and Condola Rashad
As Emmy, Condola Rashad represents a girl raised in the atmosphere Nora has fled, yet securely flowering. Her femininity – she’s quite graceful, soft voice, and exhaled thoughts tumbling together in a rush – effectively differ from that of her mother. Rashad brings youthful brightness and optimism to an otherwise dour stage.
Torvald is a challenge to illuminate, as repressed, he expresses himself less. (Body language is eloquent.) Chris Cooper allows us to see the agonized husband host a wrestling match between unresolved feelings and lifelong thinking. Anger, stress, puzzlement, and longing color controlled, patrician behavior.
Laurie Metcalf’s Nora is extremely masculine in the way she moves and sits. Wild, emphatically punctuating gestures indicate physicality inappropriate to the 1900s, but fitting to this libertarian. Metcalf spits fire. Determination, then resolve are both palpable. The actress is especially fine when speaking out at the stage apron without breaking a fourth wall.
Laurie Metcalf and Chris Cooper
I hated what Sam Gold did with The Glass Menagerie and was hesitant to check out this next effort, but am decidedly glad I did. The director utilizes every bit of his empty stage without causing characters to appear unnatural as they circle or unspool. With only four chairs, where each is dragged and the level at which a character sits (including the floor) becomes telling. A hand on a knee and one reaching across the floor both resonate without advertising. We clock visible differences between thinking and instinct. (At one exquisite point, Nora crawls to Torvald.)
Keeping with Gold’s less is more vision, Miriam Buether’s Scenery has been kept to a few chairs and large, title lights naming each character’s turn. It’s gimmicky, but the play more than makes up for it.
Photos by Brigitte Lacombe
Opening: Laurie Metcalf; Jayne Houdyshell
A Doll’s House-Part 2 by Lucas Hnath
Directed by Sam Gold
252 West 54th Street
Through July 23, 2017