Ibsen’s play is a jumping off point for a new piece of philosophical theatre now on stage in Toronto
A Doll’s House Part 2 by Lucas Hnath, currently being presented by Mirvish Productions at the CAA Theatre in conjunction with the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, suggests a theoretical sequel to the 1879 Henrik Ibsen classic. Although Ibsen said that A Doll’s House was not consciously intended to be an explicitly feminist work, it has come to stand as one. Inspired by the idea that modern society forced women to abandon a sense of true self, it shocked audiences with its portrayal of Nora, a wife and mother, who, dissatisfied with her limited life, abandons it entirely. You do not need to know all the ins and outs of the original work to enjoy Hnath’s update, just an open and curious mind.
In Hnath’s version, Nora returns after 15 years of no contact, having created a full, independent life for herself. As a promoter of radical concepts such as the ending of marriage entirely, she’s garnered some powerful enemies. She needs something from the household to avoid losing the life she’s made, but those she’s left behind are less than excited to help her.
The expansive set (Teresa Przybylski) of Krista Jackson’s production is stark white and spare, stripped to the bone, with symbolic gulfs between each small, separate piece of furniture. The gulfs will shrink as the characters attempt to communicate. What appears to be a scattered nest of sticks floats overhead, suggesting that Nora has unravelled the heart of the family. The door itself, whether open or shut, looms comically large over the rest of the stage; much like the characters, we’re unable to forget Nora’s desperate act of flight. The rapid 90-minute piece is punctuated by blinding white flashes and projected character names in five parts, as if each section is a portrait of a specific character’s mental landscape.
Deborah Hay, as Nora, comes home with confidence. Her physicality is open and expansive; despite wearing period costume, she deliberately “manspreads” at all times, legs wide apart beneath the long skirt. She takes up the space that she hadn’t been allowed to inhabit with broad, comically frustrated facial expressions. Her freed body language is often at odds with the furniture, which can barely contain her. She, and the rest of the characters, speak with contemporary flair.
This is most certainly philosophical theatre. The characters are compelling in their own right, but exist predominantly as vehicles for debates about marriage, gender roles and class. Luckily, they’re complicated debates that don’t present a binary with any one side clearly in the right. Nora’s feminist views do not excuse all of her actions, nor does Torvald’s pain excuse his tendency to play the martyr or saviour; in Paul Essiembre’s appealing portrayal, he ranges from actual nice guy to “Nice Guy,” and throughout their contest of rabid one-upmanship, displays an entire lack of understanding of his privilege. His is not the emotional abuse that comes from abject cruelty, but from a quieter refusal to see another person as a fully-fledged human being.
While it is wrong to despise a mother who leaves her children vastly more than a father who does the same thing, says the play, perhaps a real revolutionary would stay to work out the issues, rather than run from them? The “bad rules” and double standards it criticizes are simultaneously of their time and place and very modern, and a speech about the difficulty of finding one’s voice in the midst of societal baggage is heartrending.
Even more pleasingly, while still a very white production in both aesthetics and character, it engages with the notion of intersectionality. Does the feminism of privileged women necessarily lift everyone else up? Often, that is not the case, and what is an escape for one becomes a millstone for another. Anne Marie (a droll Kate Hennig), Torvald’s servant, has a vastly expanded role here from the original. She reminds Nora angrily that her escape, though it seemed to Nora a rebirth of near destitution, was only possible due both to Nora’s affluent background, and the fact that someone who did not have that money and that choice took care of Nora’s children in her stead.
As Emmy, Nora’s daughter, Bahareh Yaraghi is ethereal and otherworldly, removed and strange in her speech, exhibiting the preternatural excited calm of someone self-possessed but potentially unhinged. It’s an interesting choice, speaking to the potential damage her parents have done; here is a girl desperately seeking an ordinary life, and she’ll do extraordinary things to achieve it. This affectation is magnetic, but also sometimes gives off the impression that the actress is in a different play than the rest of the characters.
Hnath’s script makes nods to the twists and turns of blackmail and forgery from the original play, with added delight coming from characters becoming what they’ve claimed to abhor, but you could go in with a one-sentence summary of the premise and still be inspired and moved.
Though a little more could be made of the humour of the situation, and characters have a tendency to declaim at each other, that’s part of the point; it’s only when the speeches stop and the dialogue begins that we can truly move forward.
- A Doll’s House, Part 2 plays at the CAA Theatre (651 Yonge St.) until April 14th, 2019.
- Shows run Tuesday-Saturday at 8:00PM, with 1:30PM Wednesday and 2:00PM Saturday and Sunday matinees.
- Tickets are $25-99 and can be purchased online, by calling 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333, or in person at the box office.
- The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission.
Photo of Deborah Hay and Kate Hennig by Leif Norman