If you’ve ever wondered what happened after “the door slam heard around the world” at the end of Henrik Ibsen’s classic 1879 drama “A Doll’s House,” the answer to that question can be found in the Salt Lake Acting Company’s ongoing production of “A Doll’s House, Part 2.” The modern sequel by Lucas Hnath is witty, articulate and brilliantly performed.
On the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in America, theater groups up and down the Wasatch Front are observing 2020 as the Year of the Woman with productions exploring feminist themes. This timely SLAC production revives one of the theater world’s pioneering proto-feminists, a character who shocked the sensibilities of 19th Century audiences by giving up the security of home, spouse and family to pursue personal fulfillment in a world that was socially and legally hostile to independent women. When Nora Helmer slammed the door to exit from “A Doll’s House” during the premier of Ibsen’s drama in 1879, it helped to spark an international debate about women’s rights that has continued ever since.
Hnath’s spinoff of Ibsen’s play might just be a footnote in that debate, but it’s a remarkably intelligent one. The one-act play opens with Nora Helmer banging on the same door she slammed at the end of “A Doll’s House.” It’s 15 years after the original play’s finale and we quickly learn that Norma has achieved success as a feminist author. But she is forced to return to her former home because her unresolved marriage to Thorvald Helmer still threatens her new life.
Equity actress Stacey Jenson is superb as Nora. Her characterization is a skillful mix of justifiable self-assurance as a woman who has escaped the confines of marriage and embarrassment over having to return to the home where she was formerly so submissive. Ms. Jenson not only convincingly voices Nora’s radical views on marriage and gender politics, but also makes subtle use of pauses and moments of silence to lend touching vulnerability to her portrayal.
Paul Mulder is equally good as Nora’s estranged husband Thorvald. In Ibsen’s original script, Thorvald was very much a man of his era with rigid ideas of the roles of men and women. While the character is still emotionally distant in Hnath’s sequel, Mulder’s portrayal is nuanced and somewhat more sympathetic.
Rachael Merlot rounds out Hnath’s snapshot of a dysfunctional family as Emmy, the now-grown daughter that Nora abandoned 15 years earlier. Ms. Merlot makes Emmy the perfect mix of her parents’ sensibilities, amusingly defending her father’s traditional views of marriage with her mother’s relentless logic.
Finally, the hilarious Annette Wright appears as the nanny Anne Marie, who is seemingly the only spectator with a lick of common sense watching another domestic disaster unfolding around her.
If there’s a false note in “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” it’s one that Hnath fairly inherited from Ibsen. The original drama is full of deep dark secrets, hypocrisy, betrayal and frustrated passions, but there’s little red-blooded emotion to be seen or heard. Because Ibsen was more interested in ideas than people, his characters tended to be cardboard figures that wander around making what should be heart-felt confessions in coldly rational statements. For the most part, Hnath has copied that affectation. Only the cantankerous Anne Marie seems motivated by real emotions; her lines consequently draw belly-laughs from the audience as opposed to polite chuckles.
In one aspect, however, Hnath has bested Ibsen in that his script is blessed with a hint of irony. Hnath’s sequel, which is set in the mid-1890s, has Nora confidently predicting the death of marriage and the total emancipation of women “in 30 or 40 years.” Hnath is clearly suggesting that, since the definition of marriage and the nature of gender itself are still being hotly debated today, perhaps “the door slam heard around the world” wasn’t that loud after all.
Performances of “A Doll’s House, Part 2” will continue at the Salt Lake Acting Company through March 8th.