A 140-year wait pays off for theatre fans with smart, funny and satisfying sequel to A Doll's House
Royal MTC’s IbsenFest wraps with A Doll’s House, Part 2, a followup to Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 classic
What happened to the main characters in Henrik Ibsen's classic 1879 play A Doll's House after Nora Helmer walked out on her husband, Torvald, and their three children?
Theatre lovers may have had to wait nearly 140 years for the answer — but the wait is paid off richly in American playwright Lucas Hnath's 2017 A Doll's House, Part 2.
While the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre kicked off this year's Master Playwright Festival, centred around Ibsen, with A Doll's House, it bookends the festival with a tight and satisfying co-production (with Toronto's Mirvish Productions) of this Tony-nominated response to Ibsen's play.
Familiarity with A Doll's House isn't a necessity here, but doesn't hurt — those who saw the recent RMTC Warehouse production may find added resonance in this sequel, but A Doll's House, Part 2 stands on its own.
Where Ibsen's play ended, famously, with Nora leaving her family and the door slam that "reverberated across the roof of the world," Hnath's script begins with a knock at the very same door as Nora (Deborah Hay) returns to her former home, 15 years later.
The home she's coming back to — depicted strikingly in Teresa Przybylski's imposing and stark set — is virtually empty, save for a few chairs. Overhead is a sinewy, cloud-like sculpture, that looks almost like the twisted bars of a prison Nora has escaped — and returned to.
Having left her stifling marriage to Torvald (Paul Essiembre), Nora has become a successful writer. But complications surrounding the divorce have brought her back. The situation draws in the dutiful maid Anne-Marie (Kate Hennig), who stayed behind to raise the children Nora left, including the Helmers' now-adult daughter, Emmy (Bahareh Yaraghi).
Cheeky but thoughtful
Hnath's script skillfully skates a fine line between a cheeky irreverence toward Ibsen's original and a thoughtful continuation of its themes.
It has a playful tone, spurred by the fact that A Doll's House, Part 2 keeps a period setting but employs modern language. That means there are more F-bombs — and certainly more laughs, often stemming from the very modern awkwardness between the four characters — than in Ibsen's play.
The original caused scandal for its suggestion that a woman might leave a marriage — and that doing so might not be the most awful thing in the world. Hnath picks up on that, using his characters to deliver contemporary arguments for and against the institution of marriage itself, and about love and happiness — and what all of those things really mean. Hnath mines that for both moving drama and some surprisingly fresh comedy.
He also succeeds in crafting characters that move beyond being mouthpieces for one point of view or another. (Director Krista Jackson sometimes has them, though, unnaturally deliver monologues in direct address to the audience, creating a sense of presenting a speech rather than dialogue.)
The characters are, as they were in Ibsen's original, multifaceted, complicated and deeply human, intriguingly shifting the audience's sympathies throughout the play.
Those characters are given rich portrayals by the four performers, who have a sparkling chemistry together in a 90-minute production that gets a cracking pace from director Jackson.
Yaraghi has the smaller role as Emmy, but creates a sympathetic foil to Nora as the daughter who wants nothing more than a solid marriage. Hennig delivers some of the production's best comedic moments as the plain-spoken Anne-Marie.
Essiembre both charms and repulses as Torvald — the man who treated Nora like a prized possession in Ibsen's original. How much he has changed — and how much he understands his ex-wife, and her reasons for leaving him, provides rich dramatic material, and Essiembre exploits it with a beautifully layered performance.
But A Doll's House, Part 2, like Ibsen's original, hinges on its Nora. In earlier scenes, it feels as though this production tries too hard to milk comedy through quirk — Hay's Nora has a weirdly intense, birdlike skittishness and awkwardness that flirts with mugging early in the play.
As Nora's efforts to negotiate her relationship with the other three characters progress, though, Hay settles into a performance that's exquisitely deep and stirring. There are still some wonderful bits of comedy — but also a profound sense of sympathy for a woman who is still trying to find a way to live a meaningful and happy life.
Theatre fans, meanwhile, will find their own happiness in this smart, entertaining and engaging followup to a classic.
A Doll's House, Part 2 runs at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's John Hirsch Mainstage until March 16. The Mirvish co-production then runs at the CAA Theatre in Toronto from March 23 to April 14.