Novato Theater Company has a treat in store for lovers of the Marin theatre: Lucas Hnath’s 2017 modern-language sequel to one of the most controversial plays of the late 19th century and, in our time, one of the most performed.
Directed by Gillian Eichenberger, ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’ demonstrates how much and how little has changed in the century and a half since Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 original sparked outrage with its portrayal sympathetic to Nora. Helmer, a middle-class wife whose desire to be treated like an adult leads her to abandon her husband and children to strike out on her own.
“A Doll’s House” was perhaps one of the first plays to exploit this theme, both radical before women had the right to vote, or the right to do much without the supervision of a man. The closing act of the German version of the original had to be changed to lessen its impact, much to Ibsen’s dismay.
As impossible as it may seem, women’s independence is still seen as a threat in many parts of the world, even in our own so-called advanced country. Hnath’s sequel taps into this reality as Nora returns 15 years after she left to finalize her divorce from her banker husband Torvald. Pressing her case, she mentions that a judge has targeted her as a threat to social stability because of her success as a proto-feminist author. It’s a belief that might resonate with some justices of the United States Supreme Court today.
Against an elegant set by Michael Walraven made more evocative by Frank Sarubbi’s subtle lighting and projections, Alison Peltz portrays Nora with a brilliant infectious energy sustained throughout the play’s approximately 90 minutes. She first meets Anne Marie (Shirley Nielsen Hall), the Helmer family’s longtime nanny and governess, full of regret for her own personal situation and resentful of Nora for abandoning the family – and for finding a means of meeting one’s needs without depending on men. The Hall stage veteran is fully invested in her character and gives a stunning performance.
Nora then meets her now grown daughter, Emmy, played with conviction by Jannely Calmell, who has appeared several times in productions at the College of Marin and Ross Valley Players. This meeting is well done but is a glitch in Hnath’s storyline: mother and daughter are reunited after 15 years and immediately engage in a hypothetical discussion about gender roles and the institution of marriage. Emmy is a traditionalist who wants nothing more than to be a pampered wife, the diametric opposite of her mother. Their discussion makes sense in an abstract way to propel the story forward, but nowhere the emotional confrontation one might expect in such a reunion. Emmy doesn’t even say “Where have you been all my life?”
NTC stalwart Mark Clark shines as Torvald, Nora’s nearly troubled and blindsided ex-husband, damaged not because his wife left him for someone else, but because she preferred to be alone. Clark has appeared in numerous NTC productions, but this may be his best performance yet. It imbues Torvald with a harrowing mixture of sadness and confusion.
After the show, stage veteran Norman Hall described Clark’s performance as “incredibly generous”, meaning he gives as much as he receives from his bandmates. This is rightly high praise.
With a well-rounded four-member cast, this show is an example of acting and goes quickly without a hitch, thanks in part to the lack of set and costume changes. Hnath’s contemporary language fully emphasizes the universality of family conflict and personal ambition in a way that Ibsen’s stilted nineteenth-century dialogue could never achieve, at least not for modern audiences. Knowledge of the original story would be helpful for many viewers, but deep immersion isn’t necessary. This “Dollhouse” is unique.
Barry Willis is a member of the American Theater Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theater Critics Circle. Contact: [email protected]
IF YOU ARE GOING TO
What: “A Dollhouse, Part 2”
Where: Novato Theater Company, 5420 Nave Drive, Novato
When: Until June 12. 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. on Sundays
Admission: $12 to $27
Information: 415-883-4498, novatotheatrecompany.org
Rating (out of five stars): ★★★★
After: Proof of vaccination and masks required