Where: Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre,
1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through March 17
By ANNE SPISELMAN
When Nora Helmer, feeling stifled and infantilized, walked out and slammed the door on her banker husband Torvald, three young children, and comfortably bourgeois Norwegian home in Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 “A Doll’s House,” it wasn’t the end of the story.
In the 140 years since, scholars, students, and theater aficionados have been discussing the seminal play’s proto-feminism and other themes. Lucas Hnath’s cheeky “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” which had its world premiere on Broadway in 2017 (winning Steppenwolf ensemble member Laurie Metcalf a Tony Award), is just the latest salvo.
Hnath starts with a provocative premise: Nora walks back through that same door 15 years later for the first time. No longer an insecure young woman unsure of what she’s going to do, she has found great success as an author of semi-autobiographical books (under a pseudonym) telling women how to leave their husbands.
But she has a problem. As it turns out, Torvald never filed the divorce papers, so she’s still technically married and is being threatened with a suit for fraud or, worse, with arrest. Because this is Norway in 1894, it is still much easier for men to get a divorce than women, so she’s come to ask Torvald to finally give her one.
The 90-minute piece basically is a series of two-person debates about the viability of marriage, the possibility of loving and/or living with just one person for a lifetime, the responsibility one has to oneself versus one’s family and community, the relative merits of leaving a bad relationship or staying put and trying to work it out, and related subjects. Nora, played with steely determination by Sandra Marquez in Steppenwolf Theatre’s Chicago premiere, locks horns with her nanny Anne Marie (Barbara E. Robertson), her now-grown daughter Emmy (Celeste M. Cooper) and, of course, Torvald (Yasen Peyankov).
While the spare scenic design (featuring a big yellow door and several light-wood chairs) by Courtney O’Neill and the costumes by Izumi Inaba (including a sumptuous burgundy gown for Nora) suggest the period, Hnath’s gimmick is that the language is decidedly contemporary, curse words and all. It’s also often hilarious, if repetitive, and director Robin Witt has a good ear for timing. She also has instituted on-stage seating for the first time at Steppenwolf, and the audience members seated upstage—in two groups of twelve flanked by two groups of five—have the effect of being a jury or onlookers at a prize fight.
One thing that comes through loud and clear despite all Nora’s self-justifications is how little, if at all, she took into account the feelings of the others or really considered how her actions would affect them. Robertson’s sympathetic but tough Anne Marie, who helped set up the meeting with Torvald but doesn’t want her involvement to get her fired, points out that she had to raise Nora’s children instead of her own child because Nora abandoned her family. Emmy, who is as straightforward and no-nonsense as the mother she never knew, argues in favor of traditional marriage, which she is considering.
The first meeting between Nora and Torvald is strained and then contentious, but when they finally hash things out—after she pushes him to the explosive limit with a poorly explained reversal—the scene comes across as the most human of the evening. Peyankov’s petulant performance as a clueless man trying to comprehend what’s going on and do the right thing grounds it beautifully. Marquez’s Nora lets her vulnerability show, and their shared memories of the past are touching, like those of weary couples who have a long history whether or not they’re still together.
Unfortunately, I find the way Hnath wraps things up disappointing. The renewed declaration of independence fits the #MeToo age but is rather predictable. A real rapprochement would be much more satisfying.