A door slams. The viewer is stunned. Nora makes the shocking decision to leave her husband and three young children. That is where A Doll’s House, the iconic 1879 play by Ibsen, leaves off.
Now the young playwright, Lucas Hnath, has continued Nora’s story in this intriguing Tony-nominated play asking us to imagine her life fifteen years later. Hnath’s A Doll’s House Part 2, opens with a knock on that door. Nora is back.
Nora (Tony-nominated Laurie Metcalf) returns home, but not as we imagined. Now a wealthy best-selling author whose books are loosely based on details of her married life, Nora has become rich on selling the view that marriage is a woman’s prison. We soon learn that Nora herself remains married. Consequently, all contracts and investments she has made in the past fifteen years are now null and void, since married women could not engage in business without their husband’s consent. Unless she can get her husband Torvald to divorce her, she is now worse off than she once was. She may be tried as a criminal.
Yet this is a very different Nora. She’s no longer the person who had to appear “smaller” and “barely visible” in order to be desired by her husband as feminine, needing protection and support. A Doll’s House Part 2 raises the same question Ibsen did in 1879: Can a woman find her own voice in an exclusively male-dominated society?
A Doll’s House Part 2 raises high stakes. In the original classic, Nora chooses her own freedom over that of caring for her young children. Here we see her try to forge an alliance first with her children’s nanny, Anne Marie (the multiple Tony-award nominated Jayne Houdyshell) and later with her adult daughter, Emmy (played with poignant grace by Condola Rashad). First, Anne Marie, in a scathing rebuke, rejects Nora’s offer of money. After all, Anne Marie has given up caring for her own child in order to be a nanny for Nora’s. Then, Emmy moves in to blistering effect–extolling the virtues of being a married woman and mother, responsibilities Nora rejected.
The astounding Laurie Metcalf constantly acts within her acting, as if she is listening to her own argument in opposition to Torvald’s opposing dialog, a riveting feature of this play. Like Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge (novels by Evan S. Connell), we see scenes from the same marriage but from completely different perspectives, with very little intersection. Torvald (in a quiet but searing performance by Chris Cooper) is her counterpoint and both actors reveal their wounds in every facial expression, even in the comic relief interjected before the breakdown of the human spirit becomes unbearable. They box each other into a corner.
Yet, how can people expect to stay together when they are always, individually, changing? Even their emotional truths are disjointed. That is the puzzle and it is left unsolved. Nora as a character will always be defined by her never-to-be-completed quest for independence and fulfillment. The perception that a woman who puts her own needs above her children’s is violating a sacred pact —and the collision of viewpoints: freedom versus duty and obligation, relationships versus solitude, marriage and family versus individual growth —is explosive in the context of gender and social class. A Doll’s House Part 2 almost dares us to see the hypocrisy in considering Nora’s quest and struggle for identity as a human being separate from her roles as mother and wife. The price she has paid to even think it is possible may be too high. How could she have left her children out of self-care and self-love? What about social convention?
A Doll’s House Part 2 is staunchly unapologetic and an extraordinary accomplishment in literature. Each character is given center stage to see the consequences of his or her own failings, a series of unfortunate and tragic events, with visceral angst.
“The world didn’t change as much as I thought it would,” Nora confesses to Torvald. But she’s not prepared to concede defeat. Hnath brings Nora’s struggles to a new generation, knocking on our door once again.