After an absence of 15 years and scant warning, Henrik Ibsen’s Nora Helmer is back — in a gorgeous gown of brocaded burgundy satin and velvet, no less.
After that famously shocking slamming of the door, Nora (Grace Gonglewski) has returned with a flourish to the proverbial doll’s house that once confined her. That’s the conceit of Lucas Hnath’s provocative and purposely frustrating A Doll’s House, Part 2, a regional premiere on the Arden Theatre Company’s intimate Arcadia Stage through Dec. 9.
Hnath’s play, which closed on Broadway last year after winning Laurie Metcalf a best actress Tony, is not just a sequel, but a critique and deconstruction of Ibsen’s 1879 classic. In part, it’s A Doll’s House from the husband’s point of view, with a dash of comedy, evocative of Robert Benton’s 1979 film Kramer vs. Kramer.
In an intermissionless show that runs about 85 minutes, Hnath ambitiously explores not just Torvald’s perspective, but also Nora’s, her daughter Emmy’s, and even her nanny’s. The plot, which makes so little sense that on opening night one audience member cried out, “What?” at a key juncture, is farfetched but not really the point. Under the careful direction of Tracy Brigden, former artistic director of Pittsburgh’s City Theatre Company, each character gets his or her due.
We know from the start that this Nora, as she had once hoped, has come into her own, primarily as a writer of polemical novels based on her own experience. But what is she after now?
Not closure, really, nor reconciliation with the husband she abandoned, though some audience members might hope for as much. Neither, surprisingly, is she eager to reconnect with her three children, young adults who scarcely remember her.
The prod for Nora’s homecoming is to seek a cleaner end to her marriage. Her emotional iciness seems at first distressing, and in Gonglewski’s controlled performance it never entirely melts. She has to stay strong to survive.
Steven Rishard strides onto the stage as the pompous, condescending (if also wounded) Torvald of memory, and he speaks his lines in a meticulously stylized fashion. But as he admits his faults and seems to yearn for a second chance, he begins to seem achingly human, complicating obvious feminist certainties. Grace Tarves is a forceful (also somewhat stylized) Emmy, and Joilet F. Harris a bracingly foul-mouthed Anne Marie, the long-suffering nanny who helped raise those three kids.
Hnath juxtaposes contemporary language with constraints plucked from Ibsen’s bourgeois Norway, with its patriarchal legal system and emphasis on reputation. The dissonance can seem jarring. The point seems to be to locate the play’s dilemmas in the American present, even if our laws, at least since the 1970s, have moved in a more equitable direction.
Of course, women’s struggles for full equality — even to be heard and believed — continue. To up the intellectual ante, Hnath (whose plays The Christians and Hillary and Clinton also received recent Philadelphia productions) throws in some musing about the mutability of identity and the challenges of forging a lifelong marital bond.
Jorge Cousineau, credited with scenic, sound, and video design, gives us not just one, but two doors, along with sleek modern furniture and the same patterned ivory rug he used in last season’s Arden staging of A Doll’s House. Olivera Gajic’s elegant costumes, by contrast, transport us back to the late 19th century: yet more cognitive dissonance.