A Doll’s House, Part 2
Reviewed by Terry Morgan
South Coast Repertory
Through April 30th
One of the most intriguing uses of art is a conversation between an acknowledged masterpiece from the past and a current artist commenting upon it or adding to it in some way. Of course, this doesn’t always work, but when it does, the results are often fascinating. Such is the case with Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2, where the playwright examines the issues brought up in the Ibsen’s classic play with complexity and empathy. The world premiere production at South Coast Repertory is bracingly intelligent and superbly performed.
It’s late nineteenth century Norway. Years earlier, Nora (Shannon Cochran) had left her husband Torvald (Bill Geisslinger) and children to escape the prison of her marriage and discover her true self. Now, 15 years later, she’s returned to speak to Anne Marie (Lynn Milgrim), the woman who served as nanny to Torvald and who brought up Nora’s children. Nora has reinvented herself as a proto-feminist writer, and has had much success, but a judge has discovered something to blackmail her with. She asks Anne Marie and Torvald for help —and may finally have to ask her now-grown daughter Emmy (Virginia Vale) to save her.
Cochran does an impressive balancing act as Nora, whom she depicts as a smart, self-made woman with many admirable qualities, yet also, at various moments, condescending, selfishly manipulative and cruel. The fact that one is still sympathetic to her at the end of the play is a testament to Cochran’s many-layered performance. Geisslinger is equally strong as Torvald, great at conveying both the character’s initial vengefulness and his ultimate desire to understand his long-absent wife. Milgrim is terrific as Anne Marie, a nurturer pushed too far, and Vale is excellent as the tart Emmy, particularly in a scene where she harshly critiques Nora’s choices.
Director Shelley Butler gets outstanding work from her ensemble, and her pacing of this ninety-minute show is expert. Hnath does an amazing job in respecting Ibsen’s source material while expanding upon it in thought-provoking ways. The beauty of the play’s debate is that none of the characters are completely wrong; they all have good reasons for what they do or think. A moment where Nora realizes that her daughter Emmy, who is so much like herself, is about to make the same mistakes that Nora made — and that Nora can’t stop her — is an especially powerful and ironic moment.
I think Ibsen would have liked this show; he would have noted that many things have changed for the better in the past century. But he might also have been dismayed that the issues involving the rights of women that concerned him in his time, far from being resolved, are still being fought over today.
South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa; Tues.-Fri. 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. 2 p.m. & 7:45 p.m;. through April 30. www.scr.org. Running time: one hour and 30 minutes with no intermission.