BWW Review: Skillful, Riveting A DOLL'S HOUSE PART 2 at Jungle Theater
If the idea of an update to one of the world's most groundbreaking plays makes you dubious, because you think it will be a stodgy yawner or because you believe classics should not be messed with, or if you know little about Ibsen's most famous play, and so think you'll be too clueless to get this one, be reassured: the Jungle's production of A DOLL'S HOUSE PART 2 is both accessible and riveting.
You do need to be prepared for intense relational talk, lots of it, in an unbroken series of two person conversations over 95 minutes with no intermission. But the actors doing the talking are among the Twin Cities' best, and Lucas Hnath's script is a marvel of shifting loyalties: just as you feel solidarity toward a given character, that person's interlocutor comes up with a compelling reason to feel for them, too. Theater is a golden road for teaching empathy, a quality much needed in our world, and this script provides quite a complex map.
Ibsen's original was first produced in 1879 in Norway to shocked reactions, since it broke with theatrical and cultural norms. Not only was it a realistic play set in the present (not the usual theater fare in those times--Ibsen is known as 'the father of realism'), but it ended with a wife and mother, Nora, walking out on her family so that she could figure herself out enough to live a more authentic life.
A DOLL'S HOUSE PART 2 is set 15 years after that famous door closed behind her, ostensibly. But Hnath's script is very much of our time, both in diction (yes, they cuss!) and in the questions it raises: can we ever really know another person? Is a rigorous pursuit of personal identity compatible with marriage? Is the search for personal authenticity only available to the upper classes? How can long marriages work, given that partners change? Is it possible to be radically true to oneself and still live with others?
After decidedly contemporary preshow music (e.g., Beyonce's song "Freedom" featuring Kendrick Lamar) the first sound we hear is a knocking on the outside of the infamous door: Nora is back. She's got a reason for returning, which she first explains to the loyal housekeeper, Anne Marie, who raised the kids she left behind. Eventually, Nora will confront both her husband Torvald and her daughter Emmy, now grown enough to be engaged.
Director Joanie Schultz is Chicago based but has cast a dream team of four Twin Cities actors who know each other well. Nora's needs drive the plot, and she's onstage without a break, so it's great to have the brilliant and beautiful Christina Baldwin in the role: she gives Nora zest, confidence, and heart, despite the ways in which her actions impact others. She and Schultz have made some interesting choices: for instance, some moments into the action, they break the fourth wall and have Nora address the audience directly with the line "We know it's sad," referring to the frequent waste of human potential in marriage.
Matching Baldwin in the role of Torvald, Nora's abandoned husband, is Steven Epp. A highly physical performer, he communicates control at first, and then (aided by the choice of strong eyeliner) wordless anguish and surprise as he realizes who the stylish visitor in his parlor is. A gifted clown, Epp is able to ride the edge of despair and absurdity without tipping over into comedy. Doing so requires taste and talent and the assistance of an astute director to provide a discriminating outside eye. Still, for the audience, Epps' work opens a vent for laughter in the face of the overheated familial mess.
Megan Burns as Emmy, the daughter, is perky and brittle, but able to stand her ground and face off against the mother who abandoned her when she was small. She's conniving, too, a worthy successor to her mother who, back in Ibsen's play, manipulated the financial system as well as her husband. Emmy enters wearing a jarring accessory with her blue period dress: an oversized pair of white plastic framed sunglasses. LIke many good design choices, this one brought me up short at first but then made me think: this daughter might well need some protection for her 'windows of the soul' as she confronts the incandescent mother she last saw when she was a toddler.
Last but not least--she is the first character we meet--is the loyal and aging housekeeper Anne Marie, played by Angela Timberman, an actor of great range. Here, she walks with a bit of a stiff limp, but has chosen a big broad gestural style that belies the confined nature of her life situation. It was she, after all, who was left to raise Nora's kids and try to keep Torvald intact after Nora left. Doing so required her to leave her own child. She is shrill at times, and blunt, but manages to convey an underlying love for Nora that keeps her words from being as caustic as they might appear on the page. She's a worthy representative of nannies around the world.
Jungle's intimate proscenium space with its Victorian touches is the perfect space for this text. Surrounded by reminders of the past, as an audience we are collectively drawn into contemplation of present dilemmas. Scenic designer Chelsea M. Warren devised a smart, spare set of enclosing, receding arches with just a few simple period chairs leading to the notorious door, off center up stage. Lighting designer Marcus Dilliard provides Star Wars style movie theater projections before, during and after the show to deliver the back story you need if you don't have time to read the program, while also providing a sly nod to our present day performance vocabulary. Costume designer Mathew J. Lefebvre has given this Nora a gorgeously detailed period suit, but by using purple and teal has tweaked the colors toward modern times. Emmy's white plastic sunglasses aren't the only visual surprise he provides. He's salted the look with several additional anachronisms--a wristwatch, a forearm tattoo--that keep jolting us into awareness that this play is of our time, too.
A DOLL'S HOUSE PART 2 runs through February 23 at the Jungle. It embodies what the theater states as its mission: to create "courageous, resonant theater that challenges, entertains, and sparks expansive conversation." And it is done with great artistry and attention to detail. It does not provide easy answers, but it drills down to essential questions in a way that is provocative and useful. If you are up for contemplating the pitfalls as well as the benefits of marriage, and the complexities of competing needs in families, don't miss this.
Photo credit: Lauren B. Photography