Regional Reviews: Chicago
Also see John's review of Dear Evan Hansen
Contemporary playwright Lucas Hnath has imaginedas so many have over the yearswhat might have happened to Nora. As it turns out, she's done quite well. After subsisting for a time as a seamstress, she eventually established herself as a writer of popular novels. All is fine with her except that she's learned that her husband Torvald never bothered to file divorce papers, so all of the independent adult things she's been doinglike signing contractsare illegal. In 19th century Norway, where this sequel is still set, married women aren't allowed to do adult things. Nora has returned to ask Torvald to finally file the divorce papers.
Hnath has picked up on the social commentary begun by Ibsen by delving further into societal roles and laws regarding women, but he goes further than that. When Torvald finally appears, we get a more sympathetic picture of the husband than Ibsen provided and a more balanced look at the relationship. Torvald has gotten by well enough since Nora's departure, but he avoided the shame of her abandonment by claiming she was dead. Divorcing her now would reveal that lie and open him up to legal troubles and social shame.
With Hnath's Nora finding contentment and fulfillment on her own, in contrast to the messiness surrounding the marriage when looked at from any direction, the playwright asks through Torvald if satisfactory relationships are even possible. At the very least, they're difficult. In this Steppenwolf Theatre Company production, Hnath's empathy for both characters is shown with the help of fine performances by Sandra Marquez as Nora and Yasen Peyankov as Torvald. Marquez's Nora is steely and resolved, but inches toward some understanding of Torvald as she catches up with his doings over the past 15 years. Peyankov, though, is the one who really sells the piece and the message, as he reveals the sadness and desperation of the broken Torvald. Barbara Robertson and Celeste M. Cooper add comic relief as the housekeeper Anne Marie and the Helmers' daughter Emmy.
While A Doll's House was a pioneer of stage realism, this Part 2, especially as directed by Robin Witt, has one foot in realism and the other in a more presentational style. The action is played on a nearly bare set by Courtney O'Neill that includes wooden walls and just a few pieces of furniture. Witt frequently has her actors deliver Hnath's contemporary-sounding and frequently funny dialogue in a declamatory manner, rather than a more naturalistic style. Though it feels a bit strident after a time, this is not inappropriate for Hnath's writing, which, as in his play The Christians (produced by Steppenwolf in in 2016), is more concerned with ideas than plot or character; and those ideas are significant. But while Hnath adds some valuable philosophies and a welcome sense of balance to the discussion of gender roles, the sum total feels a little slight, even for the play's 90-minute length.
A Doll's House, Part 2, through March 17, 2019, at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago IL. For tickets or further information, visit www.steppenwolf.org or 773-517-6962.