When Nora Helmer walks out of her marriage at the end of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, shocking the audiences of 1879, she leaves not only her husband Torvald, a banker who condescends to his wife to the point of suffocation, but she also abandons her three young children and a life of relative comfort. The audiences were left to imagine her fate. What would she do? How would she survive? What compromises would she have to endure? The play is often touted as a baby step on the way to realizing the dream of full legal and social equality for women. Marriage at that time, and in many places today, was subjugation, the bondage of women to their husbands. It was writ large in the law and in tradition that a woman was to be subordinate to her husband.
Playwright Lucas Hnath has picked up the threads left behind by Ibsen and created an exquisitely compelling extension of Ibsen’s story with A Doll’s House, Part 2. Fifteen years after abandoning her marriage, Nora (Shannon Cochran in a dominating, complex performance) returns to the house she fled those many years before. When she enters the house, gorgeously and expensively garbed, it is clear that she has done well for herself. She has a specific goal in coming back. As she explains to Anne Marie, Nora’s childhood nanny and the woman who raised her children after she left, she has made a fine life as a writer of books we might call today radical feminism. This has offended a powerful judge who threatens to ruin her if she does not retract her positions. What hold does he have over her? It seems that Torvald never divorced her and so she is still in an inferior legal position, subservient to her husband.
A shocked Anne Marie (wonderfully played with handwringing and foul-mouthed anger by Lynn Milgrim) listens to her and weighs her arguments. When Torvald (excellent Bill Geisslinger) unexpectedly shows up in the middle of the day, he is stunned speechless to see Nora. After he returns to work, Nora’s daughter Emmy (Virginia Vale, erect of posture and forthright of speech) enters, enlisted by Ann Marie to perhaps help solve the dilemma. Each scene builds powerful emotional tension, surging from crisis to climax and dénouement.
Expertly directed by Shelley Butler, A Doll’s House, Part 2 is fast paced and utterly absorbing, supported by an awesome physical production. The scenic design by Takeshi Kata and Se Hyun Oh (lit to perfection by Tom Ontiveros) grabs the audience, or at least this audience member, upon entering the Julianne Argyros Stage. Soaring all the way to the grid, stark blue-grey walls enclose the playing space. An over-sized, white door, so large that is has four hinges, dominates upstage at the exact center of the wall. White wainscoting with a chair rail that glows with soft light runs around the three-sided set. The floor is planked with what looks like lightly stained Norwegian pine. Some chairs are cavalierly piled in the upstage right corner, some with a dustsheet on top. To the stage left of the door, a traditional, carved cedar chest, a small white table, and a black chair hug the wall, leaving two padded chairs dominating center stage. The starkness of the set creates a certain anticipation, if not a foreboding.
Costumes by Sara Ryung Clement are exquisite, especially the outfit that bedecks Nora on her entrance, a deep red gown with a small trail sweeping behind her, a cream-white, checked capelet with puffed-shoulders, and a fine black hat with matching gloves. The ubiquitous Cricket S. Myers delivers an excellent sound design.
A Doll’s House, Part’s 2 is drama at its very best. Time is short; see it while you can. It runs through April 30 on the Julianne Argyros Stage at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.