When Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House was first performed in Copenhagen in 1879, the play about a Norwegian housewife leaving her marriage was controversial. Nora accuses her dad and husband of using her as a doll, and declares that she is unfit to be a wife or mother until she has learned to be herself. She decides to leave her husband Torvald and her children. The final scene of the door closing behind her is shocking and masterful theater.
Nora’s dramatic exit is the pivot for Lucas Hnath’s sequel, A Doll House, Part 2, presented by San Diego Repertory Theatre at the Lyceum Theatre. Under Sam Woodhouse’s direction, we return to the scene of the crime in the Helmer house, and for an hour and half we are engrossed by witty debates about freedom versus responsibility.
Performances in this what-if production are outstanding, and we are stunned by its simple artistry and far-reaching relevancy. Sofia Jean Gomez as Nora, delivers one of the most compelling performances I’ve seen in decades.
Nora’s provocative, contemporary conversation puts us on edge. Her dilemma is everyone’s dilemma. Married or not, happy or not, Gomez turns up the heat in a visceral way. She turns the table on gender, and asks universal questions about power and money that cause anxiety.
There’s a knock at the door, more like a boom, the sound of waltz music, and whoosh, we are transported to that house in Norway, where furnishings are simple and stories are complicated.
Linda Libby as clog waddling housekeeper Anne Marie is shocked to see her former employer in the doorway after 15 years, and so are we. Thoughts of inequality sink in fast. “Oh you got a little fatter, how are your insides, love the floor,” rattles Nora.
Costumer Jennifer Brawn Gittings’ creates instant contrast, to fuel humorous repartee while maintaining hints of old Scandinavia. Dressed in a brilliant red coat and feather fascinator, Nora towers over the plump nanny-maid like a leggy runway model.
Anne Marie thinks Torvald should get a dog. Dogs are hilarious. Nora warns her, and viewers, not to punish women who choose to leave. She’s been writing books and having sex with lots of men. When she flicks back her split skirt, she exposes long legs in wintery tights. “We want to be naked with another person,” she quips, “and why one?”
Every seat in the Lyceum Theatre has a fine view of Nora explaining her latest drama with a judge “yadda yadda yadda,” and her rage when she discovers Torvald never filed for divorce, which means they are still married.
Ms. Libby as maid Ann Marie draws plenty of giggles, but while she was raising Nora’s children, she abandoned her own. She’s pissed off, but why did she make that choice? Why didn’t she leave the house? Well, it’s complicated.
Rene Thorton Jr. portrays Torvald with Norwegian restraint, but then again, he’s not completely innocent. His entrance is projected with brooding cello (Matt Lescault-Wood, sound designer) and lettering on the wall that evokes winter shadows (Alan Burrett, lighting designer). For 15 years he’s lived as a widower, and as he and Nora have a heated argument about human rights, they keep their distance while shifting to different spots on the floor. The beautiful planks are a metaphor for territory and order.
Their arguments are aggressive and universal. Torvald complains about Nora’s friends. He rants. She smirks. As they argue, we admire their little house bathed in blue light, and catch ourselves imagining what it might be like to leave everything and everyone. Each time the door opens, a blast of wintry air blows in and thoughts turn to alternatives.
Nora needs that divorce, and her children are grown, but she is forced to placate her daughter Emmy, played by Danny Brown with believable spunk and eye-rolling. “Someone said you were sick, in a sanitarium, or dead,” she says, and in a pleasing scene, they sit near each other on the floor, but this is not the Hallmark channel.
Be prepared for heated arguments on the way home. There are rumors that the first Doll House has caused divorces, and this sequel may spark conflict.
Without giving away the final twist, be assured that someone walks back out a door, and the image of shadowy-blue dry-ice wind is masterful.
A Doll’s House, Part 2 runs through December 16, 2018, at the Lyceum Theatre/Horton Plaza. www.SDREP.org.
Did you know? For the 2018-2019 Season, Lucas Hnath’s A Doll House, Part 2 is the number 1 play produced across America.