David Mirvish & The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre/A Doll’s House Part 2, by Lucas Hnath, directed by Krista Jackson, CAA Theatre, Mar. 23 to Apr. 14. Tickets available at TicketKing: 416-872-1212 or mirvish.com.
Lucas Hnath’s much-honoured play, A Doll’s House Part 2 (2017), has a fascinating premise. What would happen if Nora came back after fifteen years?
In Ibsen’s 1879 play, Nora walking out on her husband and children in order to find herself was shocking business. Hnath has taken the main themes that Ibsen introduced in the original A Doll’s House, and turned them into a full frontal debate, with each character representing a different side of the argument. A Doll’s House, Part 2 is a dizzying barrage of ideas about marriage, duty and the role of women, and playwright Hnath gives the audience a lot to think about.
That being said, the script is fairly static, with each person articulating his/her beliefs, never to be swayed by any other viewpoint. There is Nora (Deborah Hay) who is solidly against marriage, writing books that encourage women to free themselves from bad relationships. The conventional, narrow-minded, loyal Anne-Marie (Kate Hennig) is the nanny who had to clean up Nora’s mess, raising Nora’s children and looking after the household. Torvald Helmer, Nora’s banker husband (Paul Essiembre) still does not understand her leaving, and while he still retains aspects of the condescending patriarch who drove Nora away, the playwright has him putting forth valid points from a male perspective. For example, he was never given a chance to work through the problems of his marriage with Nora. And finally, Emmy (Bahareh Yaraghi) is Nora’s daughter whom she has not seen for fifteen years. Emmy is the new generation, but she still wants to be married, to be cherished, to be loved. To her, marriage is human warmth, and all Nora can do is warn her of what’s to come.
The rationale for Nora’s return is rather feeble, but Hnath needed some kind of raison d’être to get her home. Simply put, Nora has discovered that Torvald never divorced her. This means that she is still married, and therefore subject to the laws that govern wives, such as needing a husband’s permission to execute legal documents, for example. Since Nora has been living her life as a single woman, she could be treated as a criminal if it should become known that she is a married woman. Nora needs Torvald to give her a divorce. Once Hnath has Nora in the house, however, he can launch the great debate that is the casus belli of his play. Certainly, the exchange of ideas makes for stimulating conversation, but everything seems to fly along the surface. Do we really learn anything new?
Actor Hay has given me many pleasurable moments in the theatre. Her Billie Dawn in the Shaw Festival’s Born Yesterday, and her Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing at Stratford, both come to mind. She has always been an expressive actor both in face and body, but as Nora, her physical mannerisms are distracting. At times she seems to be mugging. Her character is like a coiled spring of nervous energy, and Hay never seems comfortable in either her own skin, or Nora’s. Perhaps director Krista Jackson is behind a huge character no-no. Nora may be a liberated woman, but sitting with her legs wide apart is just not believable. In Hay’s favour, however, her Nora certainly bears no resemblance to Torvald’s “little squirrel”. This new Nora never waivers in self-confidence.
The rest of the cast is uniformly strong. Essiembre’s Torvald is perfection. On the one hand, he is bewitched, bothered and bewildered by Nora, on the other, his vulnerability is offset by a rational mind and surprising inner strength. Hennig makes a convincing Anne-Marie — plain-talking, straight forward, no-nonsense. Yaraghi is a delight as Emmy. She is a new woman with old-fashioned ideas, but she knows her own mind, and is in no way intimidated by her mother. The lively mother-daughter conversation puts them on a level playing field.
Director Jackson’s approach seems to be to ensure that Hnath’s ideas get out there with the characters as the vehicles of delivery. Tension is a non-issue, and there is almost a farcical element to the proceedings. Teresa Przybylski’s period costumes and furniture help set the scene without being intrusive.
You don’t have to be familiar with Ibsen to get the gist of Hnath. The role of women in a patriarchal society is always going to be an easily perceived concept. Hnath is an equal opportunity playwright, so to speak. He doesn’t take sides. Rather, he presents his arguments in an objective manner. A Doll’s House Part 2 is a play of ideas, not messages.