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A Doll’s House, Part 2: I got plenty and wanted more

by | Nov 17, 2023 | Review | 0 comments

(Photo of Melissa Oei and Tom McBeath by Javier Sotres)

There’s a knock on the door. How else could it start?

In Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 script A Doll’s House, Nora, the heroine, leaves her suffocating marriage, her husband Torvald, her three young children, and her bourgeois life. And she slams the door on the way out. Famously, that slam echoed around the world. Ibsen’s protofeminism was considered so scandalous that A Doll’s House was banned in several countries. But the play was a sensation.

In A Doll’s House, Part 2, American playwright Lucas Hnath dares to create a sequel to this classic.

In it, Nora returns after 15 years and knocks on the very door she slammed. She’s back because she needs something.

When she left Torvald, he said he’d file for divorce, but, unbeknownst to Nora, he didn’t — and, for all these years, she has been acting as a single woman, taking lovers and signing book deals. (Nora has become a wealthy writer of “women’s books” that call for, among other things, the end of marriage.) But, because Nora is still a legally married woman herself, she’s been been breaking the law. Signing her contracts, she has committed fraud and could go to prison. So she desperately needs Torvald to divorce her.

But he’s not having it.

The most impressive thing about Part 2 is its even-handedness.

Nora is clearly — and successfully — fighting for self-determination in a society that’s hell-bent on denying it. But her fight has required such focus and denial that Nora has largely blinded herself to the impact her struggle has had on others.

Torvald argues, for instance, that, when Nora realized their marriage was a prison for her, she could have given him the opportunity to understand the situation instead of walking out five minutes later.

When Nora tries to enlist the help of her now-young-adult daughter Emmy in persuading Torvald to grant her a divorce, Emmy rips into her. She hasn’t had a word from her mother in 15 years, and Nora’s only talking to her now out of self-interest.

Torvald is also both right and wrong. He is legitimately wounded — and he still falls into habits that erase Nora’s individuality, including referring to her “little books.”

So the play sets up a delicate balance, but that balance isn’t always maintained in emerging director Seamus Fera’s production.

Largely, that’s the result of stylistic inconsistencies that probably started with casting.

Playing Torvald, Tom McBeath delivers the most rewarding — fully formed, naturalistic, and vulnerable — performance. When he remembers “the moment you told me you didn’t love me anymore”, Torvald’s voice cracks and it’s moving.

As a woman in nineteenth century Norway, Nora’s survival depends on being more self-contained. The character is, necessarily, a solipsist and schemer, but she is also constantly fighting an undertow of suppressed feeling. I wanted to see more of that in Melissa Oei’s portrait. There are missed opportunities, for instance, when Nora is talking about her kids. My take is that a more consistently internalized, subtler approach would have allowed her to settle into greater depth. To be clear, I am by no means dismissing Oei’s work. It isn’t as naturalistic as McBeath’s, but it is thoroughly thought-through and, late in the play, Oei finds rewarding emotional access to a speech in which Nora talks about having to live in silence for years because she found the voices of others overwhelming.

As Emmy, Tebo Nzeku nails the character’s similarity to her mom: like Nora, Emmy is smart, scheming, and outspoken. Nzeku’s performance is also vivacious, which is engaging at times and problematic at others: under Fera’s direction, it’s generally too big for a production that is going for naturalism.

For me, the best bits of Tanya Dixon Warren’s characterization of Torvald’s servant and Nora’s former nanny Anne Marie are also her steeliest: when she tells Nora she’s self-aggrandizing, for instance. I could have used more of that. Anne Marie isn’t as privileged as Nora, but my sense is that she’s every bit as strong-willed and perceptive. Early on, Dixon Warren sometimes slips into a kind of dullness and cootchy-coo sweetness that strike me as diminishing.

But I get to consider all this because the play is so rich and the performances in this production are giving me plenty to chew on.

My favourite production element is Peggy Lee’s subtle soundscape. Often with the single drawing of a bow across the strings of a cello, her score underlines the resonance of specific utterances while emphasizing the musicality of the piece.

Lee’s music also underlines the deliberate self-consciousness of A Doll’s House, Part 2.

I haven’t mentioned that, although Hnath’s script is set in the late nineteenth century, its presentation is full of anachronisms. In this production, Nora takes repeated swigs from a plastic water bottle, for instance: metaphorically, she’s an athlete on an endless marathon, after all. And the language is full-on contemporary. When Anne Marie gets pissed, she exclaims, “Fuck you, Nora! Fuck you!” (This jolt is funny and much of the script is witty.)

In one of this production’s most pleasing design elements, scenes are announced with projections that appear on the floor of the playing area. They not only tell us which characters are going to be featured in the upcoming passages, like the music, they also call attention to the artificiality of the event and encourage us to engage with it intellectually as well as emotionally.

On that level, the biggest takeaway is how little our discussions of marriage and gender have changed. We’re still struggling to figure out how to connect without losing ourselves.

A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2 By Lucas Hnath. Directed by Seamus Fera. On Thursday, November 16. A Western Gold Theatre production running at the PAL Theatre until November 26. Tickets

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