Knock-knock! Who’s there? Nora! Nora H-he-he-helmer? That’s right friends, she’s back! When Henrik Ibsen’s Nora returns, in “A Doll’s House, Part Two,” she is very different and George Street Playhouse brings this brilliantly insightful as a Holiday gift to us all. And you needn’t be an Ibsen devotee to get the gist of this return!
Perhaps it was the zeitgeist of the Women's March in 2016, with the burgeoning wave that would one day become Me Too, that became the nascent inspiration for Lucas Hnath’s darkly absurd comedic take on what would happen if Ibsen’s Nora, from “A Doll’s House,” came back after one of the most famous exits in theatrical history—or her-story. Nora (Kellie Overbey) walked out of the house she shared with husband Torvald (Andrew Garman) and their three children, 15 years before, to find out what was missing from her life. Her bosom buddy Anne Marie (Ann McDonough), who had raised her was now left to raise Nora’s children, in the absence of their mother. This ending shocked late 19th century audiences–how could a mother possibly walk out on her own children?! Fathers did it all the time, but for audiences accustomed to nuclear families and women staying in their place (aHEM), didn’t every popular story have a happy ending? Well, Ibsen’s play seemed to be cultural madness!
Hnath’s play, under Betsy Aidem’s direction in her professional directorial debut, is a her-story lesson extraordinaire. You needn’t have been a Women Studies scholar in college, if they even had that when you were there, to get what you need to know. Hnath has built it in to the script! And while the vernacular is more modern that 1890s Norway, the beating heart is very, very visible. Overbey and McDonough’s exchanges are between two women–as close as sisters–who are not flinching from talking about their emotions, their lives, and what the past 15 years have meant. Anne Marie, looking a bit like Whistler’s Mother, with brilliant comic takes and timing, gives us both the facial and body language that underline this patently absurd situation. Nora, it turns out, has become a brilliant and inspirational feminist novelist, whose life and livelihood hang in the balance, imperiled by Torvald’s failure to do the one thing he said he’d do when she left–grant a divorce.
The interchanges between Torvald and Nora are also very telling. Like Michelangelo, who said his sculptures gradually removed everything that didn’t look like what he saw inside, we understand their love, their distress, and their failure to connect, even as that connection seems to be archaeologically present. When Nora meets her daughter Emmy (Lily Santiago), as a young woman, poised on the precipice of marriage, they have a lot to say to one another as well, as Nora remains a heretic where matrimony is concerned.
The interplay of the actors is like a pas de deux–or perhaps a pas de don’t–as in don’t-go-there. They challenge one another with frictive sparks. With Torvald and Nora, there’s the sense of What Might Have Been, while with Emmy, it’s more of a sense of How Could My Mother/Daughter Be This Way, as the taste of disappointment lingers oilily on all palates, as we wonder how what we thought people were, and who they actually are, come blazing to life.
Aidem’s hand-picked design team, Deb O’s sets, Rick Fisher’s lighting, and Mark Bennett’s sound has channeled the colors and style of Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi, with fascinating pops of contrast. When you look at the walls, I felt like I was inside Miss Havisham’s broken dreams, with better lighting. Olivera Gajic’s costumes and Troy Beard’s hair and wig designs complete our portraits–we are time travelers astride a century in thought and deed. There are subtle tells to the passage of time, but I’ll save those surprises for our discussion after you’ve seen the show.
Get your tickets now for “A Doll’s House, Part Two”–I’m planning to see this again, so I’ll race you! Check it out at www.GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org
–experiences make the best gifts of all.