Stage Door Review

A Doll's House, Part 2

Thursday, March 28, 2019

✭✭✩✩

by Lucas Hnath, directed by Krista Jackson  

David Mirvish & Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, CAA Theatre, Toronto

March 27-April 14, 2019

Nora: “Marriage says, ‘I own you’”

The title of Lucas Hnath’s play A Doll’s House, Part 2 sounds like a joke. Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 dramatic masterpiece no more needs a sequel than does Hamlet or Macbeth. Yet, Hnath’s play garnered rave reviews on Broadway and was nominated but did not win the award for Best Play of 2017. Time Out New York said of the play, “It’s dynamite”. On the evidence of of the production currently playing at the CAA Theatre, it’s more like a damp squib. Hnath has no new insights into Ibsen’s play. He merely has his characters state more explicitly the ideas already present in Ibsen. His plotting is flawed and, worst of all, he doesn’t seem to know what tone he is trying to convey. Krista Jackson’s direction solves none of these problems. One leaves feeling that Hnath’s play only lives its mediocre life as a parasite on a great play.

Hnath’s conceit is that Ibsen’s Nora (Deborah Hay) returns home after a fifteen-year absence because she has recently discovered that her husband Torvald never filed for divorce all those years ago and so they are technically still married. Nora has become rich as a writer of books advising women of the servitude of marriage. She expects that the institution will die out in the next 20 or 30 years once people wake up to its pointlessness. Her difficulty is that someone has discovered the real name of the author of her pseudonymous books and if her married status is known she will be considered a fraud and will be seen to have engaged in many activities from which married women are prohibited.

To decide what she should do she has long debates with her husband Torvald (Paul Essiembre), with her nanny and her children’s nanny Anne-Marie (Kate Hennig) and with her now grown-up daughter Emmy (Bahareh Yaraghi) – each one ending inconclusively. Through all these conversations, Hnath gives us only unimportant details of the lives of the four characters, but nothing of substance and nothing that would cause us to re-evaluate what happens in Ibsen’s play. 

I must be vague so as not to destroy what little suspense there is, but it happens that Nora does get what she had come back for, but when she gets it she rejects it. Hnath means this action to demonstrate the strength of character Nora has developed while living on her own, but, in fact, in terms of plot Nora’s rejection of what she came for completely destroys the whole premise of the play. Hnath makes Nora look foolish – a stupid move in a sequel to such a proto-feminist play – because had Nora fully thought through her purpose in visiting Torvald and how it would make her beholden to him again, she never would have would have visited. 

In writing his sequel, Hnath seems to assume that the audience has only a very hazy knowledge of Ibsen’s play, perhaps knowing only that it is a play about a wife who leaves her husband and children. He makes no mention of the Christine and Krogstad subplot of Ibsen’s play, likely because he mines that to create his sequel. Nora’s meeting with her nanny Anne-Marie after fifteen years is almost exactly like Nora’s meeting with Christine after ten years in Ibsen’s play. The fear of Hnath’s Nora of being blackmailed and her “crimes” exposed is parallel to Ibsen’s Nora similar fears about being blackmailed by Krogstad. 

Most important, Ibsen sets up Christine as a the model of an independent woman who, after widowhood, has managed to live on her own and takes the active role in courting the man she loves. Hnath pretends that his Nora came to these ideas herself. In fact, in Ibsen the presence of Christine, Nora’s old school-friend, provides Nora with the insight that a woman does not need a man to feel complete. Hnath has his Nora spout truths about marriage that are already inherent in Christine’s life-story and thus tells us nothing more than Ibsen already had.

Most puzzling about Hnath’s play is its uncertainty of tone. We have the feeling that some scenes are meant to be comic and some serious, but Hnath does not make the comic scenes witty enough so that they are clearly distinguishable from the serious scenes. Hnath’s main source of comedy, judging from audience reaction, is in having his 19th-century characters use four-letter words but such a sophomoric practice hardly counts as wit.

This uncertainty of tone seems to have baffled director Krista Jackson and her solution is unsatisfactory. She has the three actors around Nora play their parts seriously and leaves Deborah Hay to act the clown to bring out the play’s feeble comedy. Hay is one of the most accomplished actors in Canada, but under Jackson’s direction she gives quite a bizarre performance. For the first half of the play Jackson has her furiously mugging and making funny gestures and movements. The trouble is that all this shtick is so broad and not necessarily appropriate to the dialogue that Nora comes off as slightly unhinged. 

For the rest of the time Jackson has Hay play Nora seriously and this is where we see how fine an actor Hay is – incisive, forceful, capable of expressing a mixture of emotions. This swinging between clowning to earnestness makes it difficult to know how to take Nora’s radical views on marriage. Some of these views, such as marriage as ownership, seem quite advanced. Others, such as the total abolishment of the institution, seem, as Emmy points out, irresponsible. Any hint that Nora is even slightly dotty undercuts our empathy with the character. With Hnath’s Nora, unlike Ibsen’s, we really don’t care what happens.

Jackson allows the other three actors to give fine, straightforward performances. Kate Hennig shows that once Anne-Marie has overcome her natural joy at seeing Nora again, her long-standing resentments against her slowly begin to come to the surface. Hennig makes Anne-Marie an uncomplicated, generous person who feels insulted when someone like Nora tries to take advantage of her good nature.

Paul Essiembre makes Torvald a more complex character than he is in Ibsen’s play. Essiembre shows that Hnath’s Torvald has been worn down through years of suffering after Nora’s departure. This Torvald is more inward-looking and has become wary of a woman like Nora, whom he knows he didn’t understand and doesn’t fully understand even now. Essiembre carefully gradates his reactions to Nora from outright hostility to a gradual warming and acceptance of his own flaws. 

Bahareh Yaraghi is excellent as the now grown-up Emmy, who appeared only as a child in Ibsen’s play and whose character along with her brothers is often omitted in some productions. Hnath has Nora claim that Emmy is just like Nora was at the same age, but anyone familiar with Ibsen’s play will see that Emmy as Yaraghi plays her is far more sensible and completely devoid of the the infantilized behaviour that Nora displays in Ibsen’s play. Yaraghi’s scene with Hay is probably the one that seems the most realistic in the entire play probably because Hnath, with nothing to use in Ibsen, has had to invent it from scratch. 

The action is played out on Teresa Przybylski’s stark set of three off-white walls dominated by the symbolic door of the play imagined as a double door at least twelve-feet high. The acting space is empty except for three chairs. Torvald is said to have sold off all of Nora’s belongings, but Przybylski makes it look as if he sold off nearly everything in the house. Above the stage is an abstract metal sculpture that looks like waves in a stream or perhaps branches of a tree. It provides some softening to the strict horizontals and verticals of the set, but its meaning is obscure. At one point Jackson has Hay’s Nora gesture up at it when Nora claims that the world is dominated by “bad rules”. Is that what it is supposed to be? It is the cloud that has been hanging over Torvald’s household ever since Nora’s departure? Ultimately, we give up trying to guess why it’s there or what it means. 

Those who know Ibsen’s play well, will find no reason whatever to see Hnath’s since he has no new insights into the play or its subject matter and his tales of what has happened to the characters are trivial. Those who don’t know Ibsen’s play will likely be puzzled by Hnath’s references to it such as Torvald’s accusation that Nora was always trying to have him find jobs for her friends or the fact that Anne-Marie gave up raising her own child to raise Nora’s. The production assembles a fine troupe of actors I am always glad to see on stage, but all throughout the action I couldn’t help but wish they were all in deeper, better written play that provided them with more complex characters to grapple with. 

It happens that J.T. Rogers’ play Oslo, seen at the CAA Theatre just last month won out over Hnath’s The Doll’s House, Part 2 for Best Play at the 2017 Tony Awards. Now having seen both, I have to say that in this case the Tony committee clearly made the right decision.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Deborah Hay as Nora and Bahareh Yaraghi as Emmy; Paul Essiembre as Torvald and Deborah Hay as Nora; Deborah Hay as Nora and Kate Hennig as Anne-Marie. © 2019 Leif Norman.

For tickets, visit www.mirvish.com.