Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The Failures of “A Dolls House Part 2”

Pamela Reed and Michael Winters in A Doll's House, Part 2 (Alan Alabastro)

A Doll’s House, Part 2
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Through April 28, 2019

Ordinarily, a strong cast of well-known Seattle thespians, like Pamela Reed, Michael Winters, Laura Kenny, and Khanh Doan lends itself to an anticipation of a great production. Ordinarily, a script that garnered 8 Tony award nominations, including for Best Play, would augment that anticipation. That would be the case for Lucas Hnath’s play, A Doll’s House, Part 2, that opened at Seattle Repertory Theatre last week.

Following along as a sequel to the celebrated Henrik Ibsen play, A Doll’s House, Hnath imagines what happened after the famous “door slam” in Ibsen’s play. It’s incumbent, for this play, that you know and understand, already, the preceding play, in order to pull from it all its meaning.

You need to know that Nora Helmer (now, 15 years later played by Reed) was treated essentially as a “doll” by her husband Torvald (now, 15 years later played by Winters) and that she finally and thoroughly rebels by that play’s end and no matter how much grief and difficulty might ensue, she can see no other remedy than to leave – without her children or any visible means of financial support.

You need to know that there was a nanny, Anne Marie (now, 15 years later played by Kenny) who had taken care of Nora before her marriage and stayed on to take care of Nora’s three children.  The youngest, a daughter (now, 15 years later played by Doan), is said to have been too young to really remember her mother.

You even, in best cases, need to know that in the original Ibsen play, a significant issue was that Nora had secretly forged a signature to obtain a bank loan so that Torvald, sick at the time, could be taken to a healing spa. A bank loan officer tries to blackmail her about it to save his own job, and Torvald positions it as a “mistake” she made that he can “forgive” her for.

The sequel has Nora arriving back at the Helmer home with only Anne Marie expecting her. We learn that the primary reason for her return is that Nora recently learned that Torvald never actually divorced her. Since women are legally barred (as Nora already knew from signing that other loan document years earlier) from independently signing for loans or acting legally independently, Nora has unintentionally done many more “illegal” acts, thinking she really was a divorced – and therefore legally free – woman!

Another man in Nora’s sphere is threatening to reveal that and ruin what she has built over time. Nora’s solution is to get Torvald to actually divorce her so that both her reputation and his can be saved.

I’m going to make several assumptions, now, about both why the script could be a good or bad play, and why it’s not well presented at the Rep. The play is very, very wordy. That makes it difficult to pull off unless a director and cast have a very specific idea of what it all stacks up to. That cuts against the script itself being that “good.”

I look at the intent of the script as a kind of pressure cooker play, all in the one drawing room, where tensions should build toward the crisis. The speeches seem “important” but what seems more important is the subtext for the entire set of conversations. There should be huge emotions running amok in this play (although mostly unspoken), for any production, because any real people facing family members that they haven’t seen for fifteen years, having left in emotional turmoil, would be in huge emotional turmoil seeing and speaking to each other again. So, it should seem like Mamet plays (he who writes very little conversation and uses ellipses for silences to be filled) only with lots of conversation that should be used as ellipses to be filled in with unspoken emotions.

Unfortunately, director Braden Abraham seemed to misunderstand the script or simply failed to find a way to help the actors connect to the subtext. The actors talked “at” each other. They did not seem to connect to each other. He also deliberately directed his actors to break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience. This script, again from the standpoint of “pressure cooker,” is one that seems never to want to address the audience directly.

A key moment is when Nora meets her daughter Emmy. At that crucial moment, the text/dialogue says, out loud, that Emmy doesn’t have any emotions toward Nora. Nora seems to simply accept that. Yet, common sense about most estranged families would indicate the complete opposite and the drama and tension would theatrically play against that. Not in this production. Here, Abraham seems to take the script at total face value. Therefore, the mother-daughter meeting is devoid of emotion and boring to watch. It teaches us nothing of value about either character.

What happens, then, to us as audience members, is that paradoxically, the people we feel the most connected to are Anne Marie and Torvald. Winters, actually, is wonderful in this production, with a welter of emotions that play through his dialogue. He shows Torvald’s confusion and anger and vulnerability and all the kinds of levels that every character should have in this script.

But was it Hnath’s intent to take an iconic theatrical emblem of budding feminism and subvert it toward reclaiming Torvald’s reputation in the international theater canon? Or was he intending helping us to imagine how successfully Nora had managed the male-dominated, patriarchally-structured society of that time? This script might not be the best representation of the second idea, but I assume that is what he really wanted to accomplish: to show how Nora had flourished and reclaimed herself.

Either Abraham failed the production, or the script isn’t worth what people think it is. Or, possibly, both.

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