BWW Review: A DOLL'S HOUSE PART 2 at Coyote Stageworks
For those who are unfamiliar with A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen that's perfectly fine. All you need to know is that Nora Helmer walked out on her husband Torvald and their three children with a slamming of the front door.
Written in 1879, the sound of that slamming door reverberated for many years to come. The ending was so hard for society to wrap its collective head around, when it was mounted in Germany, the lead actress refused to do the play because "I would never leave my children" and had Ibsen (begrudgingly) write a different ending where Nora stays because of the children.
Thankfully, the original ending was restored, and if you've ever wondered what became of Nora, buckle up. A Doll's House Part 2 by Lucas Hnath is about to break it all down when she comes home 15 years later to ask her husband, Torvald, a favor.
It seems that Torvald hasn't divorced her, and it's become problematic for her career as a feminist writer (she didn't die or become a hooker, yay!); her popular books, under a pen name, encourage women to leave bad marriages.
Although Nora's done well for herself, her homecoming brings her face to face with the people she left behind: the nanny, Ann Marie, who raised Nora and then raised Nora's children when Nora left; Nora's husband Torvald; her daughter Emmy, who was a toddler when Nora left, and has no memory of her mother. Nora must contend with all of their feelings while also defending her decision to leave, as well as to get what she came for.
This is Coyote Stageworks' first production in its new space at the Palm Springs Cultural Center. It's a very intimate theater which works extremely well for this play. Also, the seats are comfy, all with great views of the stage, which is wonderful because A Doll's House Part 2 is as much about the emotions it evokes in our actors' faces and posturing as it is the verbal sparring in this extremely well-written and acted 90-minute play.
The set is somewhat barren, just two chairs and a credenza - Torvald tossed out everything that was Nora's, including her piano and a painting on the wall that is now a ghost with only a dusty outline remaining. The dialogue is confrontational, and while that might sound like a talky snoozer, it is most definitely not. It is a riveting master class in fine writing, acting, directing, and production.
When the knock comes on the door, it takes Ann Marie a few minutes to answer because the dustbuster she is using is noisy. When she enters in full Victorian housemaid attire holding said dustbuster, we immediately realize we are in a mixed reality. The second clue is the box of Kleenex on the credenza, the third is hilariously absurd, and I won't give it away, but also know there is some well-placed profanity of the contemporary kind, that packs a punch.
When Ann Marie opens that door, Nora grandly sweeps into the room expecting Ann Marie to marvel at who she's become. And while Ann Marie has true affection for Nora, she's not very happy with Nora's decision to run off and drop her own family in Ann Marie's lap without even uttering a "thank you" upon her return.
Robin McAlpine, who wowed in last year's The Understudy for Coyote Stageworks, plays the wonderfully nuanced Nora with zest. We are curious about her, we're on her side, then...not so much, and then...maybe? Her head-to-heads with Barbara Gruen's Ann Marie produce some of the best laughs in the play. Gruen, who embodied the hard-boiled Dottie in CVRep's Good People, nails it as the faithful but crusty Ann Marie.
Torvald (Don Amendolia) comes home early to find Nora in his parlor. He's worked hard to strip her memory from the house and from his head, but here she is, back in his life filling it with turmoil. Amendolia, whose credits span Broadway, film and TV, gives a solid performance as a man trying to understand why his wife left him, how it changes him, as well as the plethora of problems her return has caused.
Just as you're marveling at how wonderful all of these actors are, and that theater just doesn't get any better than this, Lizzie Schmelling takes the stage and knocks us clean out of our seats with her whip-smart portrayal of Emmy, Nora's now-grown daughter. It's a riveting performance.
Produced by college chums David Youse and Chuck Yates, both active valley actors, they've pulled out all the stops with their technicals. Thomas L. Valanch's set is as elegant as it is sparse, and it's well lit by Jason Smith's design. Frank Cazares' costumes are splendid per usual, although if I'm gonna get picky, Emmy's dress is a bit confounding with it's big leather belt and draped apron. It looks very pedestrian next to Nora's fabulously rich traveling suit. Maybe that's the point.
It's a highly entertaining play with some pretty interesting twists and turns, and a gasp or two. Hnath's incredibly well-crafted but tricky dialogue could be tedious in the hands of a less-skilled director, but luckily Chuck Yates is not one of those. He keeps the dialogue flowing at a "Gilmore Girls" clip, and we never stop being engaged for one single second.
It's really, really good theater. You'll be thinking about it long after you leave.
Run times and dates:
Wednesday 2/12/20 at 7:30 p.m.
Thursday 2/13/20 at 2:00 p.m.
Friday 2/14/20 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday 2/15/20 at 2:00 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.
Sunday 2/16/20 at 2:00 p.m.
The Palm Springs Cultural Center
2300 E. Baristo Road
Palm Springs, CA 92262