Reviewed Performance: 10/27/2018
Reviewed by Chris Hauge, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
It was the door slam that shook theatrical history. In Henrik Ibsen’s seminal play, “A Doll’s House”, the character of Nora comes to the realization that the world of 19th Century Norwegian society has no place for her. She has no legal standing apart from her husband (even the children she gave birth to are property of the husband and are not really hers), no money apart from her husband, and has no part to play other than being a piece of social decoration with no personality of her own – a doll. Faced with this, Nora Decides to turn her back on her husband and children and leaves, shutting the door with a sound that still echoes today.
“A Doll’s House, Part 2” by Lucas Hnath begins with a knock at the very same door. It is fifteen years later and Nora (Shannon J. McGrann) has returned. She has been out in the world and found her voice, becoming a novelist under a pseudonym and achieving success on her own. But the society created by and for men has put her present life in jeopardy and she must visit her old life to save herself. In doing so she must confront the pain and anger still felt by her husband, Torvald (J. Brent Alford), her now grown daughter, Emmy (Amber Marie Flores), and the Nanny of her children now staying on as Torvald’s housekeeper, Anne Marie (Judy Keith). To use movie hyperbole for sequels, in “A Dolls House, Part 2”, Nora is back, and this time it’s very, very personal.
Stage West has given us a powerful and moving production of Lucas Hnath’s, and the direction of Clare Shaffer allows the actors to delve into their parts with realism and strength. I was impressed with Ms. Shaffer’s pacing of the script. She is not afraid of pauses which reveal more than words because she has a assembled a cast of actors who internally inhabit their roles. The emotional power displayed by actors who are fully committed give us a production that is powerful and wholly satisfying.
The set, designed by Karlee Perego, is a large empty space haunted by empty spaces on the wall that once held pictures but are now devoid of any link to the past. Even the furniture that was once part of Nora’s ‘doll house’ is gone, with just three chairs remaining. Tamara Harris’s lighting provides the appropriate atmosphere for this blank canvas that becomes a picture of pain, longing and continual striving for love and a self-realization. The costumes by Jeremy M. Bernardoni are lovely (the women’s gowns are stunning and Torvald’s suit is perfect) and provide a link to the 19th Century, while the actors move beyond a specific era and deal with issues that still resonate to this day.
Nora has returned to get the divorce Torvald never granted. Without it, everything she has attained will be lost. She may have left the doll house, but she exited only one room of it. The restrictions that beset her in the house became an extension of the doll house, constructed with established rules which bar her from keeping what she has gained. Shannon J. McGrann attacks the role of Nora with everything she has. She knows the righteousness of her cause and fights to hold on to the self she has discovered. She doggedly seeks a resolution and Ms. McGrann shows us Nora’s pride in herself and the frustration with the societal restrictions which threaten her. But Nora refuses to let her daughter fall into the trap Nora found herself fifteen years ago, even if she must face disgrace and prison. Shannon J. McGrann gives us Nora with courage and skill.
The passive-aggressive Torvald is played by J. Brent Alford. He is wonderful. His lack of action on the divorce has put Nora in peril. His inaction on changing public opinion about Nora’s departure has put his own world at risk. Mr. Alford shows us the struggle this man has endured for 15 years. He shows us the pain and anger he feels about Nora’s return with physical restraint, with everything pulled inward. It’s a hard job to pull off well and Mr. Alford does it with grace. And, of course, all this pent-up emotion bubbles out, resulting in a shout of frustration regarding Nora that echoes the feelings everyone has felt about their relationships sometimes in life. I think you will know it when you hear it. And Mr. Alford gives it a memorable delivery.
Judy Keith gives so much depth to the nanny, Anne Marie. She was trapped in the house by Nora’s departure, raising the children who were left behind. Ms. Keith shows the anger and love that inhabit here when Nora returns. She becomes Nora’s confidant and ally. Hurt as much as anyone by Nora’s departure, Anne Marie walks a fine line when dealing with this unexpected return. Love, confusion, pain, fear of betraying Torvald, and so many other emotions are the underpinning of Ms. Keith’s performance. She handles it like a pro.
Amber Marie Flores is the epitome of icy social graces as Emmy, one of the three children Nora left behind. Emmy doesn’t remember her mother and only remembers her absence and the lessons that absence taught her. Ms. Flores is remarkable. The way she holds herself, the way she speaks, all this hiding the emotions under the surface, is amazing to watch. It is a performance that blends beautifully with the other actors. She exudes quiet power.
A knock on the door takes us back to “A Doll’s House” and it is a welcome visit. The only sad thing about the play is it makes us aware the societal restrictions on women have not gone away. They have merely evolved and become more inbred and insidious. So, it’s hard to say, “The more things change, the more they remain the same,” but it is true. Stage West has given us a strong production that continues the discussion on this dilemma. And that provides some hope. Join in and see what you think.