Digging up buried treasure, or opening a sealed treasure chest or vault, is sometimes considered the domain of rogue, brave adventurers and sometimes it is thought to be the fruitless labour of fools. Lucas Hnath falls more into the category of the former, as prying open Henrik Ibsen’s theatrical landmark A Doll’s House to swing open that proverbial door so literally – and masterfully – shut by really old school feminist icon Nora could have concluded more in a landmine than another landmark. But Hnath accurately felt that there was more story to tell in the epilogue of Nora’s decision to walk away from her family because she felt her marriage was a farce and her life lacked purpose and meaning. Perhaps more story to tell because the first time it happened on stage, it was 1889. A brave move by a married woman, and a mother no less – seen as socially suicidal by the ingrained patriarchy of the time, Gloria Steinem has nothing on Nora – except perhaps for being born about seventy years later.
A Doll’s House Part 2 has now gained such iconic status as a follow-up, not only did it rack up multiple nominations at the Tony Awards for its 2017 Broadway run, it was quite literally the most produced play of the year. Most cinematic productions’ efforts that fall into the category termed sequels end up in the discount bin of your local big box store some time later; here, Hnath’s brilliant writing – coupled with the enthralling directorial style of Caitlin Murphy (making her “chair” debut, no less, after a stellar run as Segal Centre Artistic Associate) – is so crisp and efficacious, it stands alone to the point that one can have an exhilarating theatrical experience with Part 2 never having seen the original in any form, and still rather effortlessly leave inspired and mesmerized.
Torvald vs. Nora might also be called The War of the Roses – 19th Century Edition. They gradually ripped the veneer off their marriage, perhaps Nora really more than Torvald – with the help of the mighty pen of legendary Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. What scabs were left melted into a denouement, the dramatic ending on which antithetical fairytales are built. They ended up apart the first time, and the societal shock of Nora abandoning not only her husband, but her children as well in the late 1880s, figuratively turned the live theatre world on its ear. But it also spawned a brand of reality theatre that is certainly held near and dear in productions far and wide since.
Sarah Constible passionately steps into the role of Nora fifteen years on, as she’s back with a purpose. Oliver Becker stoically, but masterfully, stands his ground as the abandoned husband and father Torvald. In the middle is aging family nurse Anne-Marie, handled poignantly by the multidimensional performing abilities of Victoria Barkoff. But off to the side is perhaps the most victimized and sympathetic character of them all, daughter Emmy, just a small child when her mother left, and now a young woman. Ellie Moon handles the diverse layers of Emmy with trademark poise and range.
The theme explored in A Doll’s House Part 2 couldn’t be timelier. Gender roles, gender expectations, the ever-expanding definition of the family unit: 1889 and 2018 are really not that far apart. Pierre-Étienne Locas’ haunting and thought-provoking set design sets the scene for the gripping and shocking drama that is to follow, even recreating the iconic door through the absence of one; just a hollow passageway rather than placing an actual door there. Louise Bourret’s period costumes of early 20th century life cocoon the visual experience beautifully as well, with superb lighting by Anne-Marie Rodrigue Lecours rounding everything out.
Hnath brings the unlikely follow-up to life with his sharp and evocative script, and Murphy directs the ensuing tornado with just enough nuances so as one is able to duck rather than be hit with a flying object or barb (or swear word, really), and the four actors complement one another in what can perhaps be termed a “diamond of dysfunction,” or maybe a “square of scores to be settled.”
You’re invited to the house that Ibsen built – but which has undergone some renovations – playing at the Segal Centre until December 9th. Visit segalcentre.org for more information or call the box office at (514) 739-7944.