Regional Reviews: St. Louis
A Doll's House, Part 2
Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House, Part 2 is less of a sequel to Henrik Ibsen's classic drama from 1879 than a speculation on the "social cost" of what comes next. Which is great, because the original play examined the cost to women, of being ground down to nothing. And this 2017 version elevates something very particular in the current moment in our own history. On the one hand, now that Nora Helmer has returned to her family, fifteen years after throwing it all away, she seems to embody everything that's wrong with feminism, at least from a conservative political perspective. She is haughty and self-absorbed, even when she has quite possibly botched the whole thing up.
Then again, it all proceeds as a relentless 90 minutes of solid critical thinking (bolstered by steady laughs), which puts a very liberal slant on this newest production at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. So maybe our starkly divided nation can come together, at least for one hour and a half, using good old liberal analytical skills to (seemingly) debunk women's rights for conservatives. Put put your righteous indignation away, because Timothy Near directs, and "playful" is the best way to describe the result. And deciding which political ideal Nora will ultimately fulfill becomes a gigantic "knock-knock joke" from the moment she arrives. Though everyone seems to ask "who is it," she can't really answer till the very last moment of the play.
Caralyn Kozlowski is Nora, anything but humbled by her newest crisis. And, as in A Doll's House, she is once again threatened over a scandal. But now she presents her need for return as a merely ridiculous event in an otherwise stellar new life: her book on becoming an independent woman has revolutionized Norway, though it was also blamed for a spate of divorces. And one of those divorces happened to involve a judge who now threatens to ruin Nora. It seems she's not the person she built her reputation on.
Tina Johnson is Anne Marie, the housekeeper, still maintaining order even though all the furniture is perversely swept into a corner piled up like forgotten toys. Scott C. Neale designed the nearly two-dimensional upstage part of the set, which is bleached-out to Bergmanesque starkness and painted like miniaturist piecework. The rest of the stage is nearly empty, though Nora gradually populates it between the scenes, from that pile of furniture, in Freudian (or Disney-fied) little fantasies of domesticity. Anne Marie is just as small and sensible and dutiful as Nora is grand and idealistic, and sporadically chews out her former mistress over Nora's abandonment of her children.
Like any good re-examination, we will meet one of Nora's offspring later, played by Andrea Abello as the surprising younger daughter. But most importantly, we'll be stunned all over again by the inescapable plotting of Henrik Ibsen, nicely telescoped by Mr. Hnath: everyone here is trapped, and everyone is laying traps for everyone else. It's a perfect backdrop for Anne Marie's amusing grumbling and Nora's cocky rationalizations that go flying back and forth.
Michael James Reed plays husband Torvald, and I kept staring to make sure it really was him on stageyou could easily mistake him for a more poetic younger man, like actor Jim Butz. I couldn't believe my own eyes, because of Mr. Reed's series of recent roles as domineering authority figures. Now he's the "forgotten man," battered and bowed, but finally prompted to search for his own inner strength. I shouldn't be surprised he could pull it off, but I am.
Is it truly resonant with the original piece, one of the earliest and best of all modern dramas? No, but it's funny. It's also in that very elusive newer style, where what it seems to be, on the surface, intentionally, is really just the tug on a fishing lineto lure us to examine our own place in the world. The price of admission (to this or any good post-modern play) includes being strapped into a front row seat as our own mental drama plays out alongside, before our eyesin this case, as witnesses to our riven society. We've spent our whole lives learning how to watch stories unfold. And now we're finally learning how to watch ourselves, while watching a story, at the same time.
A Doll's House, Part 2, through November 4, 2018, on the Browning mainstage at the Loretto-Hilton theater building, 110 Edgar Rd., on the campus of Webster University, Webster Groves MO. For more information visit www.repstl.org.
The Players (in speaking order):