Ibsen’s original is followed by Lucas Hnath’s ‘Part 2’ as we find out what happened to Nora

Michael Schantz and Marianna McClellan in ‘A Doll’s House.’

Part 1: She’d rather be elsewhere

The most well-known thing about Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play A Doll’s House is that a wife, Nora Helmer, abruptly leaves her husband at the end of the play. No one knows where she goes or what becomes of her, and the husband, Torvald, is left stunned in her wake.

After all, he reasons, their marriage is pretty good. They have a nice house, beautiful children and his recent promotion to bank manager means their money woes will soon be over. Nora even admits he’s been very kind to her before she essentially kicks him in the balls and bails.

Given all that, the curious thing about A Doll’s House is that most of the play isn’t focused on the need for marriage counseling between Nora and Torvald. It’s centered on a tale of blackmail between Nora and a guy she borrowed money from to help Torvald (without his knowing). It’s a wrenching tale of a woman caught in an ever-escalating trap from which the only apparent escape is death. It’s a great story of deception, desperation and awful choices.

Director Chris Coleman is fortunate to have cast Marianna McClellan as Nora. As the tormented housewife who at first appears as a lightweight and well-dressed ninny, McClellan delivers a performance that’s simply brilliant. As events unfold and she’s torn in several directions within the confines of the Helmers’ small, tidy living room, McClellan flits about like a wounded bird, her face alternately brightening and darkening with each new twist. Even her extraordinarily ornate and bulky dresses can’t mask the squirming body underneath that longs to be free of her situation. McClellan and Coleman have a long way to take Nora, but they get there in fine style.

We can’t take our eyes off of her.

As Torvald, Michael Schantz is also fantastic, playing the banker as the straight man who tries as best he can to accommodate his dizzy wife whilst keeping the 1879 Norwegian patriarch stick firmly up his ass. (When Nora wrenches it free in the final scene, it sets up the action for A Doll’s House, Part 2, but we’ll get to that in a moment.)

As the scheming bank clerk and former loan shark Nils Krogstad, Zachary Andrews has a breakout role. His intermittent appearances are like bombs that drop on Nora’s heretofore neat little life, and Andrews gleefully teases out Krogstad’s every oleaginous nuance.

Despite all the heavy stuff, Coleman finds levity where he can from this adaptation by Frank McGuinness. In some places, the audience’s laughter is simply a reaction to the chasm between our time and theirs, where in others it’s from strategic pauses, eye rolls and well-timed takes that induce laughter. It’s a useful way to help set up the sequel, which is primarily a comedy, but I’m guessing the audiences back in the day didn’t find much humor in A Doll’s House.

A little melodramatic

The other major characters in the plot are Kristine (Anastasia Davidson) — an old friend of Nora’s who shows up out of the blue with a sad tale about being widowed and broke — and Dr. Rank (Leif Norby), a friend of Torvald’s and secret admirer of Nora’s.

It’s helpful to remember that much of the theater being produced in the late 19th century was melodrama, and A Doll’s House has some over-the-top plot turns that stem from that tradition. Dr. Rank’s soul-baring admission to Nora is so blatant and embarrassing to Nora that it cuts short the favor she was about to ask him. Kristine’s intercession on Nora’s behalf with Krogstad almost sounds like something cooked up at the last minute in the writer’s room after the show runner yells: “Tie it off! I don’t care how!”

Those aside, many of the scenes in A Doll’s House are searing and captivating — particularly toward the end when Krogstad’s letter telling all is finally opened by Torvald (this following a painful series of ministrations by Nora to prevent this from happening). And it is his reaction to his wife’s deceit that breaks open the whole marriage for Nora. His angry words, which he later dismisses as irrelevant after the blackmail crisis is averted, cannot be unheard by Nora. What seems like a shocking and sudden decision at first soon comes to make sense as Nora explains what it’s been like to live under the thumb of men — first of her father and then of Torvald.

“Have you not been happy here?” Torvald demands of her after damning her as an ungrateful and unreasonable woman.

“No,” she says. “Only cheerful.”

And that’s no fun for anyone.

Now and then

Ibsen’s play was not loved by all when it came out, in large part because Nora’s truth was painful for an entirely patriarchal society to hear. Even though it was based on the experience of some people he knew, a wife up and leaving like that was far from a common occurrence. (When it was produced in Germany, the actress playing Nora refused to perform the ending as written, and Ibsen reluctantly wrote an alternate ending where Nora stays.)

Even today, not everyone is on board with Nora’s decision, but it did open up discussions about traditional roles and the stifling atmosphere under which most women lived. Some of it is still being fought today, but watching A Doll’s House is also to appreciate how far we’ve come.

“Let’s go see a 140-year-old Norwegian play” may not be the most enticing line to get someone to the theatre, but this staging of the McGuinness adaptation is very enjoyable (even my 18-year-old son liked it). The DCPA production is, as usual, first-rate, with extraordinary costumes by Meghan Anderson Doyle and a beautiful set by Lisa M. Orzolek atop the fine casting and crisp direction by Coleman.

I was curious to note a credit for “psychodramaturgy” in the program by Barbara Hort, Ph.D., but if that’s what it took to help McClellan with her extraordinary performance of Nora, I’m all for it.

Barbra Wengerd and Leif Norby in ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2.’

Part 2: Fuck you, Nora!

There’s really only one way Nora Helmer can come through the door she notoriously stormed out of 15 years previously at the end of A Doll’s House — and director Rose Riordan nailed it.

On a darkened stage at the top of the show is a furious rapping at the door. The maid Anne-Marie (a brassy, hilarious Leslie O’Carroll) yells to hold on and the doors fly open, mystic smoke a-swirlin’.

In comes Nora, all fabulous, wearing an outrageous red and green dress that looks like those gaucho pants from the ’80s crossed in a temporal vortex with Versailles’ finest tailors. Her blonde hair is a work of art, a preposterous hat pinned precariously to the top.

It’s A Doll’s House, Part 2, and she’s got some ’splainin’ to do!

After the Hollywood theatrics die down a bit, Nora (flamboyantly played by Barbra Wengerd), toys with Anne-Marie as to where she’s been and what she’s been up to. This is the same Anne-Marie, of course, who had to pick up the pieces and raise all four of the Helmers’ children after Nora up and left following her marital epiphany. Her interest in seeing Nora after all these years is limited at best, and she gives up trying to guess how Nora has become successful and wealthy.

According to playwright Lucas Hnath, she did it by writing best-selling books for ladies, at least one of which is essentially the story of Nora and Torvald all those years ago. Yes, Hnath’s 2017 play takes plenty of liberties with language and plot, but he eventually gives us what we want when Torvald comes home from the office early and finds Nora waiting.

A bare room

We’re in the same home in a small town in Norway, presumably around 1895, but there’s no furniture left in the home. The drapes are gone, the paintings that once hung on the wall seen only through the palimpsest of their absence. Gone, too, are the children who once romped through the rooms. Grown up, we’re told, although if memory serves the baby from the original play would be 16 at most.

No one has heard a peep from Nora in the years since her disappearance, and Anne-Marie lets her know it was no picnic with the brooding, wounded Torvald (Leif Norby — Dr. Rank from the original — in a stellar performance). He never remarried, didn’t speak at all for some time, and still toiled away at the bank after enduring the shame of having to explain Nora’s absence. Ultimately, the story got around that she was dead, and Torvald didn’t bother to correct anyone.

But now, Nora needs something: a divorce. In the course of her affairs, she gets in Dutch with a judge whose wife took Nora’s “marriage sucks” book a bit too literally and dumped his ass. When he looks into who was behind Nora’s nom de plume, it turned out the brazenly single author was still, in fact, married.

Legally, at least. And for a variety of reasons she explains to Anne-Marie, that has to be corrected.

It should come as no surprise that Torvald is not at all disposed to help her with anything.

Nora & Torvald’s guide to marriage

This is a very funny play, especially in the first half (it’s presented with no intermission). Hnath has a good time having Anne-Marie and Torvald rake Nora over the coals — they both say “Fuck you, Nora!”at different points. It turns out that toying with a theatrical stalwart like A Doll’s House is surprisingly rife with comic potential.

But the real meat of the play comes when the baby, Emmy, shows up and sets something else in motion. Played by Anastasia Davidson (Kristine in Part 1), Emmy is clearly older than 16 but A Doll’s House, Part 2 is clearly not entirely literal. (How have the Helmer’s survived all these years without furniture? Or drapes? Or the cuckoo clock?) Davidson plays Emmy as a sort of Stepford child, a robotic weirdo who claims to harbor no animosity toward the mother who abandoned her and is merely curious about why she’s blown into town.

With Torvald’s obstinance and Nora’s choices narrowing, Emmy presents a third option that ominously mirrors the original sin from the source material.

Offstage, there’s some interesting stuff going on at the town clerk’s office involving certain documents, but the details of all that — while pretty funny — are secondary to the final showdown between Nora and Torvald.

This is where Hnath’s script really shines. In picking up the pieces from the first play and trying to have the two principals reassemble them years later, he ends up having them dissect the very existence of marriage. Nora, we know from her books, has already found it to be a stupid thing she happily tossed aside. Torvald, for different reasons, also left marriage in his wake. But the impact of those choices on the two have had profound effects.

Nora has a fascinating bit of dialogue where she describes having to almost literally retreat to the wilderness to silence the voices of her father and Torvald in her head. Both of them, she says, were always there questioning her every action, commenting, judging.

Torvald, pissed as he was, seems to find himself agreeing with Nora about the futility not just of marriage but of ever really figuring out how to be with people.

Norby and Wengerd are a delight to watch together on stage. She’s a headstrong loon and he’s an all-pro Gloomy Gus. But the pieces of their former life together, the ones that worked, seem to settle around their shoulders like fairy dust. Or dandruff. You can almost see them deciding to get back together.

Nah! Not gonna happen. But Riordan has a lot of fun with them physically on stage. At one point they’re chasing each other in wheeled chairs and, in the end, they end up in a defeated heap next to one another on the floor. And when Nora, as she must, whirls out the door once again and the cast returns for the curtain call, it’s a celebration we can all get on board with.

And now, it seems, we can close the book on A Doll’s House. But this double-header is a blast to watch — a theatrical extravaganza that delights and surprises at every turn.

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