“The phrase “When Nora slammed the door” (or versions of it) has floated around for some time, certainly since the start of the feminist movement. When Henrik Ibsen’s Nora Helmer walks out on her husband, Torvald, and children, the action was considered an early representation of women declaring their equality. It was seen as an act of liberation and thereby reflected (long overdue?) feminist intentions.
Since the iconoclastic 1879 play debuted, it’s undoubtedly the rare Ibsen partisan who hasn’t wondered what happened to Nora when the slammed-door reverberations faded, not to say what might have happened had she ever reentered that famous door.
To cite one example of theater interest: In 1982 Harold Prince produced A Doll’s Life–with book and lyrics by Adolph Green and Betty Comden and music by Larry Grossman—which only stuck around for a few days.
For a more critical and commercial instance: Last season Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 opened to acclaim and to a Tony for Laurie Metcalf as Nora and six other Tony nominations, including one for the play.
In Hnath’s look, it’s 15 years after Nora did her slamming. When she knocks on the Helmer door again and storms through it, she’s primed to make even more volatile comments about marriage and, as she sees it, the need to shutter the institution for good and all.
Indeed—with Julie White portraying Nora in the replacement cast (only Jayne Houdyshell remaining among the original four players)—the liberated lady, wearing David Zinn’s stylish period costume, spends several minutes standing downstage center. As director Sam Gold dictates it, she’ there to lecture the audience on her beliefs, and White uses the opportunity as if she’s been handed a stand-up comedian’s hunk of material. All she lacks is the mic.
One of the delights of Hnath’s decision to compose a sequel to Ibsen’s classic drama is that he doesn’t conform to what audience members might predict will be the experiences Nora reports of a tough existence, that she’s returning chastened and prepared to remain this side of the door.
Hnath immediately disabuses of that surmise. Nora is in no way a broken figure. Quite the contrary. She’s now a successful author, who’s written a series of best-selling novels about women declaring their independence of men and of society’s expectations. The first book, she explains to family retainer Anne Marie (Houdyshell), was a fictionalized account of what led her to leave home.
Then, after unburdening herself of her anti-marriage convictions, she explains she’s darkened the Helmer doorstep because she’s only just learned that Torvald never filed divorce papers, as he’d promised he would. That’s put her in a touchy position. Thinking she was divorced, she’s been leading a visibly free life. As, however, a woman still married she could be in legal trouble. She’s at possible risk of losing everything for which she’s worked.
So she’s on the premises solely to confront Torvald (Stephen McKinley Henderson) about signing the papers. That’s what she does, when he appears and sets in motion two scenes during which Hnath presents something Ibsen doesn’t do to a large extent. He offers Torvald’s side of the story—and convincingly.
Also, Nora arrived wanting to avid meeting any or all of her three now grown children. That hope is vanquished when Anne Marie talks her into spending time with daughter Emmy (Erin Wilhelmi). Again, Hnath seizes the chance to have Nora learn how one of the children left behind has matured.
Hnath—whose resumé is lengthening into a list of works each of which is markedly different from the others—is markedly adept at allowing each of his characters to be outspoken and sympathetic. This includes Anne Marie, who has abandoned her own children to raise Nora’s but whose pressing financial needs were the motivation.
The humanity Hnath brings to his 90-minute Ibsen extension is a mark of his abilities and the reason why A Doll’s House, Part 2 has been greeted with such acclaim.
Certainly, nothing of the play’s suasion and humor has been lost with the cast changes under Gold’s smart direction. No comparisons are necessary. Suffice it to say that had Julie White opened when the play did, it could very well have been she who won this year’s Tony. She plays broadly at first, assuredly getting the laughs Hnath includes. Then, as the complexities of the Nora-Torvald marriage are examined, she hits all the right pathos notes.
Henderson, well known more for his memorable appearances in August Wilson’s 10-play cycle, couldn’t be more solid as the still-baffled Torvald. Arriving in greatcoat, he resembles Otto Soglow’s Little King, which may be part of why this solid performance suggests he would be (should be?) turning up some time soon as either Lear or Gloucester in Shakespeare’s tragedy.
Wilhelmi presents a good deal of appropriately smiling sangfroid as Emmy, a young woman who has done okay without having a mother as model. As Ann Marie, Houdyshell remains as valuable as she always is no matter whom she’s playing. Incidentally, her look of disapproval, which she gets to show off many times, would freeze not only Medusa and also all he snakes.
By the way, Hnath and Gold have neatly gone about updating the language and the look. Obscenities Ibsen would never have allowed (and maybe didn’t even know) abound and somehow seem perfectly acceptable. So does the square box of Kleenex (or the like) sitting conveniently atop an upstage table on Miriam Buether’s spare white high-walled set.
While Hnath quickly establishes Nora’s having made her way through a changed life, whether she now chooses to stay with a Torvald she understands—and who understands her—will remain a secret here.
It’s enough to say she doesn’t forsake her contention that marriage is ludicrously obsolete. Is it or isn’t it? As Hnath ends his eventually wise and even conciliatory parable, that’s the gnawing question Hnath leaves the ticket buyers pondering. Hooray for him.