‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’ at Steppenwolf:
Sharp knock at the door, but is anyone there?
Review: “A Doll’s House, Part 2” by Lucas Hnath. Directed by Robin Witt at Steppenwolf Theatre through March 17. ★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Fifteen years after Nora Helmer famously – or perhaps infamously – walks out on husband and children at the end of Ibsen’s play “A Doll’s House,” what do you know but she’s back, knocking on that same door, and not exactly bonnet in hand. Indeed, Nora has found great success as a writer. What an intriguing conceit for the sequel Lucas Hnath has ventured in “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” which I saw for the first time in Steppenwolf’s current staging. Except that I came away with the distinct sense that Nora, the woman of the hour, was missing.
When you’re encountering a play cold, and it just seems to lie there, it’s sometimes hard to judge whether the problem resides in the work itself or in the performance. The bizarre paradox of “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” as it played out at Steppenwolf, was the vacuity of Nora redux. She has resurfaced with a single purpose – to get the divorce from husband Torvald that only he can initiate without ugly public accusations that would inevitably besmirch his good name.
As the liberated Nora explains, she has long assumed that Torvald would have obtained a divorce years ago. But no. It turns out Torvald just wanted her to come home. Result: The still-wedded woman is guilty of adultery, technically must convey all her earnings to her husband and, moreover, has been dumped by her publisher for deception and corruption. Nora is not in a good place. So what about the divorce? What about it, Torvald? Eh? Putting the same question three different ways only hints at the repetitive tedium that appears to be the sum and substance of Nora Come Home. Lassie was more interesting.
I suspect there’s more to her than Sandra Marquez summoned in what felt like a walk-through. In any case, Marquez’s queenly Nora, beautifully gowned in crimson with a splendid hat to match, comes up short each time she squares off with another character. First, it’s the housekeeper Anne Marie (the delightfully droll and practical Barbara E. Robertson), who initially welcomes this woman whose abandoned children she has raised. But as Nora’s narcissism becomes clearer, Robertson’s indulgent old minder progresses from surprise to vexation to bitterness. There is movement in her character.
Even more striking, and more compelling, was the churn in Yasen Peyankov’s astonished and confused Torvald. For what at first appear to be reasons of hope and forgiveness, Nora’s husband declares once and for all that he will not initiate a divorce: that if she is going to drag his name through the mud, then she’d better do it. Nora appeals for the intercession of their now grown daughter Emmy (Celeste M. Cooper in single earnest scene). But the suddenly meaningful daughter observes that the woman before her is a complete stranger. Emmy was just another encumbrance, another string Nora snipped as she walked through that door when this young woman was a toddler. Reborn Nora recalls that leaving her children was hard, so very hard, the hardest part.
Whenever Marquez’s self-employed, self-centered, self-righteous Nora spoke, it was almost invariably monotonal – whether she was entreating, rationalizing or ranting. The lines sounded practiced, like well-rehearsed movements to correct position. The palpable qualities of shock, dismay, regret that laced every vocal gesture of Peyankov’s Torvald were eerily absent in much of Marquez’s performance. Peyankov’s steadily building effort reached its summit in an unexpected moment, a desperate bid not to save his name but only to be remembered in a more kindly way than Nora has immortalized him.
In Torvald, Peyankov shows us a flawed but complicated man, a credible and sympathetic person who is prepared to make a huge concession at incalculable cost to himself. Throughout the play, one is drawn increasingly to this deceptively passionate character. In Marquez’s Nora, whom we, like the housekeeper, greet with empathy and expectation, we find little heart and less heat. Perhaps in the roiling inertia of nouvelle Nora, we behold a rare and special instance of toxic femininity.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreInChicago.com