BWW Review: St. Louis Repertory Theater Presents A DOLL'S HOUSE, PART 2
Playwright Lucas Hnath revisits Ibsen's A Doll's House.
A scandalous drama is still politically potent after 139 years! When Nora Helmer slammed that door in 1879 she told the world that her duty to herself was greater than her duty to her family. Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House has been an iconic inspiration to generations of second-wave feminists. In that simple, strong action Nora-Torvald's "little songbird"- flipped the bird to centuries of patriarchy.
The St. Louis Repertory Theater has opened a very strong production of A Doll's House, Part 2. The Broadway production of this play received eight Tonys last year. For the next year or so A Doll's House, Part 2, is likely to be the most widely produced play in America.
We see Nora returning to the very home that she abandoned fifteen years ago. Why has she come? It seems she is in a legal and career crisis. She has earned a living and built a reputation writing books which urge women to take responsibility for themselves-even if it means leaving their husbands and children. Wives of powerful men have followed her advice, and one such abandoned husband has unearthed a very embarrassing fact about Nora's history: though she has been living with the freedom of a divorced woman, she is in fact still married. Her husband, Torvald, has never had the gumption to file for divorce. He couldn't face the shame. He let friends believe that Nora was ill, recovering in some sanatorium. After a while the town assumed that she had died. Now Nora has returned to persuade Torvald to give her a divorce. (At that time and place it was much more difficult for a wife to file for divorce.)
If Torvald files for divorce he must admit to the shameful fraud of living as a widower; if he doesn't Nora faces scandal and possible criminal charges. (All of this, of course, in 19th Century Norway.)
The set, by Scott Neale, is gorgeously simple-all whites and grays, almost sketched. Barely any furniture, with a few things covered with dust-cloths. (Has there been no life here since Nora left?) But the door! That door! It is so significant, so prominent. And sure enough Nora makes an ENTRANCE through that door that she had long ago slammed so dramatically. Tall, striking, beautiful, powerful, Nora (Caralyn Kozlowski) appears in that door-frame-and she dominates! A little later Torvald (Michael James Reed) makes a similar ENTRANCE. He is so Torvald! Iconically Torvald. Both these principals do superb work. And they are beautifully supported by Tina Johnson as Anne Marie, the old nurse, and by Andrea Abello as Emmy, Nora's daughter.
At first Torvald is astonished to see Nora. In fact he barely recognizes her until she does a few steps of that gay Neapolitan dance with which she had once entertained him as that "capricious little Capri girl". Then he grows defensive-after all her reappearance will threaten his reputation. But finally he submits to her will-only to have this submission rejected. ("What does woman want?!")
Director (Ms.) Timothy Near keeps the action lively and, for the most part, manages to mask the few weaknesses of the script.
The dialogue is refreshingly modern-a relief from the Victorian dust from which all those William Archer translations suffered. Old Anne Marie has a sharp and uninhibited tongue. Little Emmy, who really never knew her mother, is delightfully free of any resentment toward Nora-and, being engaged and in love, she makes a strong case in favor marriage and its bond.
Nora, for the most part, busies herself in rehearsing the rather tired feminist dogma against marriage. Their quarrel becomes physical-and there is about one second of almost mystical eroticism as Nora, astride Torvald on the floor, pauses-then pulls herself away, to sprawl separately on the floor.
It is only late in the play, when she and Torvald lie exhausted from emotional and physical "rassling", that the political rhetoric gives way to honest emotional exchange. And then it is lovely indeed. I'm not sure whether it is playwright Hnath or actor Reed who should get credit, but Torvald finishes this struggle with my sympathy. Nora is simply too sure of herself, too convinced of the virtue of her position, too invulnerable in her dogma. She alone has learned nothing from this struggle.
Costumer Victoria Livingston-Hall keeps strictly to the 19th century, but her gift to Nora is startlingly beautiful and perfectly fitted. Nora appears in a stunning dark curiously glittering travelling cloak. This is a successful woman! She doffs it to reveal an equally beautiful stylish dress. Young Emmy is similarly gracefully garbed.
One minor, but significant, problem with this production is in the casting of a tall, robust, forceful beautiful woman as Nora. Throughout Ibsen's play Torvald showers Nora with scores of references to her as "little spendthrift", "sweet little lark", "little bird", "strange little being", "precious little songbird", "little squirrel", "little helpless thing" and other such affectionate but belittling epithets. The Nurse follows suit a few times. Nora even refers to herself as "little squirrel" a time or two.
Miss Kozlowski is perhaps taller than anyone else on stage. She is not "little" anything. And she is not vulnerable. A smaller and less beautiful Nora would engage our sympathy whatever the strident sanctimony imbued to her by the script.
I wish this production had not been so "timely". It is a really good script, but in the vapor trails of "Me Too" and the Kavanaugh hearings it smacks strongly of trendiness. A few years ago Mr. Hnath wrote a better play, The Christians, which really ought to be seen on a local stage. But it's about fundamentalist Christianity-and it's not at all mocking. It's not at all trendy.
Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House, Part 2, continues at the St. Louis Repertory Theatre through November 4.