Review: Nora keeps on keepin' on in 'A Doll's House, Part 2' at Barrington Stage Company

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PITTSFIELD — Director Joe Calarco's workmanlike, at best, production of Lucas Hnath's overrated "A Doll's House, Part 2" at Barrington Stage Company begins with a cut from Australian rock singer Grace's cover of Lesley Gore's 1963 hit, "You Don't Own Me."

It's not the first time over the course of this intermissionless 90 or so minutes at BSC's Boyd-Quinson Mainstage that we hear Grace's reworking of the original, interspersed with original raps by G-Easy. The music is hard, metallic, loud, calculatedly abrasive and in-your-face; the anthem of a loud, percussive production that, for all its flashes of wit, is nowhere near as funny as the thunderous waves of laughter that originated from the back of the house at Sunday's opening would have had us believe.

That introductory passage of music gives way to a series of knocks that become heavily amplified poundings on the massive door that dominates the upstage center portion of Brian Prather's spare, curvilinear set.

Hnath's meaningless intellectual exercise takes place 15 years after Nora (an often too-histrionic Laila Robins), the heroine of Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House," has left her banker husband, Torvald; their three children and the house/nursemaid, Anne Marie. For those who may have wondered whatever happened to Nora after she sailed out of the protective, smothering shelter of her home into the forbidding male-dominated world outside, Hnath is only too willing to explain it all for you. In the 15 years of her absence, Nora has succeeded in making her life over in her own terms. Writing under a pseudonym, she has become a hugely popular, financially successful novelist, especially with women. Her first book, a runaway sensation, is a thinly disguised roman a clef about her life with Torvald and the choice she made to walk out. The book has become a kind of feminist manifesto which decries the institute of marriage and has led many female readers to walk out on their marriages.

But she is still a woman living in a man's world that does not permit married women to conduct business on their own. When an angry judge whose wife has walked out on their marriage after having read Nora's book finds out Nora's real identity and that she has never been divorced, he threatens to expose and ruin her unless she recants her books and the defamatory statements she has made about marriage. Nora, who has assumed all along that Torvald had divorced her, realizes the only way she can protect all she has gained is to persuade Torvald to sign the divorce papers. And so, she has come home.

Proud, fierce in her determination, clearly the center of her own world, Robins' Nora is neither easy nor particularly likable. From dutiful wife and mother, she has become independent, strong, very much her own woman, but there is a sense she has paid a price for all she has gained. She has little warmth and she moves and acts by calculation and design. She makes no apology for the choices she has made. She wants what she wants when she wants it and she is filled with self-justification.

"What I did wasn't easy," she tells an uncomprehending Anne Marie (credibly and robustly played by Mary Stout). "It was hard. It took discipline. And I had to think past the feelings and about what's best for everyone involved."

"A Doll's House, Part 2" plays put in a series of one-on-one encounters between Nora and Anne Marie, Nora and Torvald and Nora and Emmy, who, as luminously played by Ashley Bufkin, is a young woman this new revised Nora should welcome — smart; acute and resourceful; clear about what she wants in life even if it isn't her mother's way; engaging and engaged;, very much her own person. She must be a handful for her dad, played with telling dimension and color by Christopher Innvar.

"I actually think in a lot of ways things turned out better because you weren't around," Emmy tells Nora. "I think I'm better at life because of it. I had a lot more responsibility. I had to deal with some difficult truths about life at an earlier age than you."

Emmy has never known Nora. She was an infant when her mother left. For the first seven or eight years of her life she believed, as did many in the community, that Nora was dead until her two older brothers, whom we never see, tell her otherwise. Her only memories of Nora are theirs. Asked about her own memories of Emmy, the best Nora can do is feebly refer to the determination Emmy shows as she came out of Nora's womb.

Emmy resents the fact that Nora's only interest in her now is because Nora needs something from her. It's an observation that stings with its truth and pins her mother into a defensive posture.

Robins and Hnath's play are at their most persuasive and compelling in Nora's scenes with Innvar's meticulously shaped Torvald. His reaction to Nora when he first sees her in his home is priceless; a catalog of feeling. At first aggressive and defensive, Torvald later tries to assure Nora that he is not the man she married. There is in Innvar's deeply wounded Torvald a courageous vulnerability; resentment; self-protection; anger; an effort to understand who this new Nora is; to make amends; to perhaps persuade her to start over. At times, their scenes approach a little bit of Strindberg; a littler bit of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Robins' Nora is filled with histrionic physical and vocal flourishes. Her Nora can be a drama queen; emotionally high pitched as she singlemindedly drives toward her objective. She wants what she wants when she wants it.

And so she is led to another fateful choice at the play's end. Whether the journey has been worth it, for us as well as for her, is another question.


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