Feminism and Family Collide in the Ibsen-Inspired 'A Doll's House Part 2' at Berkeley Rep
by Jay Barmann
It begins with a knock at the door. Then a slightly louder knock. Then an insistent pounding. And with that, Ibsen’s groundbreaking, proto-feminist heroine Nora Helmer returns to the “doll’s house” she stormed out of 15 years earlier with that theatrically famous slam of the same door. When the original A Doll’s House premiered in 1879 and was subsequently translated into and performed in dozens of languages, the idea of a competent, headstrong housewife walking out on her husband and children was shocking and scandalous. And 140 years later, in A Doll’s House Part 2, playwright Lucas Hnath plumbs the unanswered questions and troubling conflicts that Nora left in her wake, some of which remain unresolved in the relatively enlightened moment we live in now. How could a woman leave her children behind simply because she was in a dissatisfying or loveless marriage? Would those children grow up to resent her? How does Nora square the loss of her family with the freedom she gained?
Berkeley Rep is presenting this timely — and in some ways timeless — original play as the opening production of their new season, directed by the great Les Waters. The Broadway production earned Tony nominations for all four of its actors, and the four-person ensemble is ferocious and compelling here as well, led by a commanding performance by Mary Beth Fisher as Nora.
Issues of money and legal woes are the points of tension in Hnath’s sequel as much as they were in Ibsen’s original play, bound up as these issues were in the Victorian-era traps that many women found themselves in in the Western world. Women couldn’t seek their own divorces without proving cause, and nor could they easily earn their own money without doing so in secret, or bending the law. Nora was emblematic of women who realized they didn’t want to be kept like dolls in boxes, forever under someone else’s control because of the constructs society had built to contain them. And one of the first jokes that gets a laugh in Hnath’s ca. 1894 continuation comes when Nora suggests aloud to her onetime nanny Anne Marie — who went on to raise her children in her absence — that all these constructs that oppress women, including marriage, should be a thing of the past “in 30 or 40 years.”
Confronting Nora’s revised version of herself — now a successful writer of women’s fiction who never once reached out to her children for fear of complicating their lives — are Anne Marie (played with terrific, long-suffering fierceness by Nancy E. Carroll), as well as her grown daughter Emmy (played with great confidence by Nikki Massoud). And ultimately it’s ex-husband Torvald (John Judd) whom Nora has arrived to see, because, for reasons involving her new career, she has just discovered that he never properly filed their divorce.
Hnath elegantly constructs his narrative in five scenes, primarily with two-person interactions, without ever letting Nora leave the stage once she arrives — as though to trap her again in this same house. Anne Marie makes sure to call Nora on her rationalizing, Torvald makes sure to scream, “I can never fucking win with you,” and Emmy makes sure to remind her, “You never gave me anything.” Andrew Boyce’s clean, spare set adheres to the play’s needs and stark, modern mood, and the period costume design by Annie Smart — in particular Nora’s incredible dress — deserves its own applause.
As much of an impressive playwright’s exercise as it is, A Doll’s House Part 2 still comes up a bit short on resonant, soul-shaking emotion. It is a debate play, and a tight and stimulating one at that, but still one that leaves a chill in the air and ends on an uncharacteristically trite note. Despite Waters’ masterful direction, it remains tough to empathize too deeply with anyone on stage. That said it’s also a uniquely meaty actors’ showcase with four fully realized and demanding characters, each of whose entrances carry equal thrill and weight. Fans of serious theater should probably see it for that reason alone.
A Doll’s House Part 2 plays through October 21 at Berkeley Rep. Find tickets here .