1/13/2019        A DOLL'S HOUSE, PART 2                                          Aurora Theatre

 

*****  ( A+ ) 
           
THE DEATH OF MARRIAGE

(Sloth Alert:  This was a co-production of Actor’s Express and the Aurora Theatre.  It is being staged here with the same cast and creative team as last year’s Actor’s Express staging.  Accordingly, most of this is copied from my review of that production.  Most.  Not All.)

 

 

In December, 1879, at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark, a female character did the unthinkable -- she turned her back on her husband and children, and walked out of her life, with a "door slam heard around the world."  Henrik Ibsen's A Doll House had its first performance, and the tradition-bound audiences of the time were shocked and appalled.

 

But Nora Helmer, at least the idea of Nora Helmer, has persisted, the idea that there is always a door, that marriage is not an escape-proof prison, and, more importantly, that the paradigms of society can (with effort) be subverted.  The process may be long, it may be painful, it may even be fatal, but the needs of one woman can indeed face off against the needs of the patriarchal institutions that govern the land, and may even emerge triumphant.

 

Or can they?

 In Lucas Hnath's 2017 Tony-Winning A Doll's House, Part 2, Nora has come home.  Fifteen years have passed -- profitable fulfilling years for Nora (it seems).  But she has learned that Torvald Helmer has never officially divorced her,

putting her at risk for imprisonment for "behaving like a single woman" for those fifteen years.  But, Torvald cannot grant the divorce without exposing his "spotless" reputation to scrutiny and censure.  Youngest daughter Emmy cannot assist without scandal ruining her advantageous engagement.  Judgmental nanny Anne Marie cannot assist without risking the reciprocal judgmentalism of that same society.

 

For ninety intermission-less minutes, we see all their stories, all their points of view, all the small wounds left by Nora's spirited departure fifteen years earlier, all the ethical compromises made (or about to be made) as a result of that long-past "door slam."

 

And, by the way, it's a comedy, but not without its moments of high drama, gut-wrenching and shattering. 

 

In a burst of creative ingenuity, Mr. Hnath has chosen to "period-clash" the piece -- for all the societal paradigms under the microscope, we're in late nineteenth-century small-town Norway, complete with full floor-length dresses and tight-fitting frock coats, complete with patriarchal attitudes and the archaic societal "rules" and laws that are the stock and trade of the masculine elite of Scandinavia.  But for the discussions on marriage and love and emotional connections, we're are solidly in 2018, with modern furniture, modern syntax, modern transition music, modern LED lighting, modern ethnically-blind casting, and modern f-bomb droppings.  The dichotomy works better than expected.  The costumes remind us of Ibsen's characters and the society they inhabit, while the modern touches remind us that "The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same."  The intellectual clash-of-eras is easily subverted by the emotional unity-of-tone.

 

We NEED to be reminded of Ibsen's era so that Torvald can finally respond to Nora's action, so that Emmy can show her Mother the shortcomings of her "ideals," so that Anne Marie can temper her anger with compassion, so that Nora can prove to her family (and to us) that she can make it on her own, that family is not necessary for survival and success.  Happiness, as usual, is another story altogether.

 

And we NEED to be reminded of everything that has not changed since 1900, that Marriage is still alive and well, that institutional marriage adapts to attacks on its existence and comes out transformed, and perhaps even improved.  Yes, A Doll's House chronicled the Death of a Marriage.  But, as much as Nora would have wished, it did not provide the starting point for the Death of Marriage.

 

I absolutely adored Tess Malis Kincaid's portrayal of Nora.  To be blunt, she fully inhabits the character, giving her a passion and an internal life that can be breathtaking.  More mature that Ibsen's Nora, she is no longer Torvald's "Little Squirrel," but has become a ferocious cat, a lion preening her dominance   It is a terrific performance, every bit as compelling as it was last year at Actor’s Express – maybe more impressive because this time she gave it while fighting the vestiges of a cold. 

 

As Emmy, Shelli Delgado is every bit the "Little Squirrel" that Nora once tried to be.  But she also has a bite -- not afraid to "bend the rules" in the name of expediency, not afraid to challenge Nora's justifications -- "I know what it's like to grow up without a family.  That's the one thing I DON'T want!"  (Please forgive the paraphrase).  As Torvald, Rob Cleveland brings all his skills into creating the quintessential Ibsen man -- insecure in his authority, blustery in his (almost) anger, self-righteous to the point of priggishness.  And as Anne Marie, Deadra Moore is all earth mother nurture, all real mother scolding, all all-mother regret. 

 

All four performances serve the story perfectly and mesh beautifully -- although the play is structured as a series of two-character scenes, the ensemble work is such that they come across like a family unit -- their influences on each other -- even considering the fifteen-year gap -- are unmistakable.  Congratulations to director Freddie Ashley for staging the piece so elegantly, and for bringing out the humanity in these characters.

 

Isabel & Moriah Curley-Clay have designed and built a beautifully sterile set -- all beige walls and hard angles, with nary a hint of color or personality.  Nothing of Nora remains -- it's as if she took all the life with her when she left this house those fifteen years ago.  The modern chairs are almost an afterthought -- period furniture would have added more warmth and color than the family could bear. 

 

Lighting Designer Joseph P. Monaghan III has created an unusually elegant mixture of traditional and modern -- white general washes echo the color-free motifs, but gobos along the top of the set hint at a wallpaper pattern that may have once been there.  And LED strips that frame the proscenium remind us that, we LIKE using our computers to create jarring moments of color and life.

 

Elizabeth Rasmusson has dressed the cast perfectly -- Nora in "Look at Me" Green, Emmy in virginal white, Torvald and Anne Marie in the blandest of grays.  The characters fidget in the tightness of the collars, as if the clothes themselves are channeling the paradigms that are cutting off all their air.  It's no surprise that Nora sheds her coats as soon as she possibly can.

 

Some would say that giving Ibsen a sequel is the height of hubris.  What can we possible say about Nora that hasn't been said repeatedly in the 135 years since she first slammed that door?  And, perhaps they'd be right.  But Lucas Hnath has written a surprisingly funny and compelling piece of theatre that continues the story, deepens the conflict, and reminds us that stirring endings are often beginnings sneaking in like Eliot's cat-like fog.

 

And, the cast seems to fill the (large) intimacy of the Aurora space as they did the (small) intimacy at Actor’s Express.  Gentle voices seem to fill to the balcony, but the immediacy of the emotions had me leaning in, if only to engage more fully.  This second viewing is just as memorable as the first, and knowing what’s to happen adds an emotional layer that deepens the experience.  Please do not be afraid to take the long trip to Lawrenceville, even if you already experienced it last year.

 

Silence.

 

There's a knock at my door.

 

Maybe the better part of discretion would be to just not answer. (We all have pasts that may be better not faced.)

 

--  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #ATDollsHousePart2)

 

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