Monday, February 4, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 131, A Review: "A Doll's House, Part 2" (TheaterWorks/Hartford)

By James V. Ruocco

In "A Doll's House, Part 2," it's been 15 years since Nora Helmer slammed the door on her husband, her children and her past and went out into the world to create a brand new life for herself with no connection to her bourgeois life or none to explain her curious existence far beyond the confines of her 19th century, middle-class home in Norway.

Where did she go?
How did she survive?
Who did she become?
How did she support herself?
More importantly, did Torvald Helmer actually file for divorce? And if he did, where exactly is the legal document proving the decree absolute?

Food for thought? Oh, yes!

Those questions and more are addressed and answered in TheaterWorks' neat and tidy staging of "A Doll's House, Part 2," a smart, freestanding work of sorts that thrusts Ibsen's characters in a brand new light with a brand new story that is often edgy, profound, comforting, strange and passive-aggressive. From the start, it's obvious that this piece was not created to equal or copy the dramatic sweep and frenzy of  "A Doll's House." Instead, it simply takes its cue from Ibsen's landmark play and seizes the opportunity to become its own period voice through a more contemporary lens.

Written by Lucas Hnath, "A Doll's House, Part 2' is peppered with a knowledge and understanding of Ibsen's original work and the playwright's thoughts and themes about marriage, divorce and relationships. But the comparisons stop there. Up close, this isn't an homage to Ibsen or something steeped in nostalgia despite many references to the far superior "A Doll's House" and its key story points. Instead, Hnath gives his work a decidedly modern heartbeat, offset by a very feminist political message and contemporary language and slang including the words "fuck," "shit" and so on. It's hardly jarring or controversial. It's just not Ibsen - style, structure and language. And, for the most part, that's o.k.

What's important here are the four central character's of the piece, their evolution and their growth as seen through the eyes of Hnath. Continuing Ibsen's story, the playwright concocts an often deft, well-versed drama with words and passages that excite, cajole and surprise. There's a lot going on during the play's 90-minute course as the characters themselves wrestle with ideas, dilemmas and conflicts as people from another century.

Most of it is edgy and smartly nuanced. In particular, the arguments, the revelations and the confrontations. Elsewhere, some of it, bores and falls flat. But only fleetingly. Then, there are times when you shake your head in disbelief wondering "What the fuck is Hnath thinking?" Or, "Bloody hell, this has absolutely nothing to do with Henrik Ibsen?"  Here, the point, Hnath is trying to make, despite familiarity, is to make everything that happened in "A Doll's House" seem new again. It is why this sequel exists.

"A Doll's House, Part 2"  is being staged by Jenn Thompson, an award-winning director whose credits include "The Call," "Conflict," "Bye, Bye Birdie," "Abundance," "The  Eccentricities of a Nightingale,"  "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," "Angel Street,"  "Mary Stuart" and the rousing, splendidly orchestrated production of  Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" at Goodspeed Musicals in 2017. That said, she's a natural fit for Lucas Hnath's sequel to "A Doll's House."

As director, Thompson fuels the piece with an energized, fluidly theatrical vision that often complements the playwright's continuation of Ibsen's original story. Her approach is personal, stylized and conscientious. She gets the story. She understands the story. She gets the characters. She also understands the mechanics associated with period drama from its confined staging and rangy acting techniques to how to build and shape a sequence in terms of character, line delivery and story advancement.
Everything that happens in "A Doll's House, Part 2" has been carefully thought out from how a character sits, observes, listens, moves, reacts and delivers a line of dialogue. This being a play completely dependent on conversation in a very small, sparse, intimate setting, there's not an awful lot of blocking and movement. In turn, Thompson is limited to what she can and cannot do.
Characters, of  course, move only when necessary, a conceit that works, for the most part, then, falls apart for two or three minutes as the play drifts completely into tedium, then, jumps back on course, as blips and boredom are quickly forgotten.

"A Doll's House, Part 2" stars Tasha Lawrence as Nora Helmer, Sam Gregory as Torvald Helmer, Amelia White as Anne Marie and Kira Player as Emmy Helmer. All four wear Alejo Vetti's handsomely designed 19th century period costuming with tailored precision and flair.

Last seen in Long Wharf's "The Roommate," a marvelously constructed two-character play where she gave a clever, intuitive performance, Tasha Lawrence takes the lead role of Nora Helmer, grabs it by the horns, makes it her own and runs with it. It's a compelling, progressive turn that smartly shows how the character has evolved over 15 years and one that is rich in emotion, defiance, power and independence. In the pivotal role of house servant Anne Marie, Amelia White is somewhat of a revelation. Her performance, true to Ibsen in every way imaginable, is layered, passionate, driven and bruised. Throughout "A Doll's House, Part 2," her interaction with Lawrence is truly magnificent. It is one that demonstrates superb acting, characterization and fundamental grace and precision.

As Nora's husband Torvald, Sam Gregory looks very much like the controlling, self-absorbed character channeled by Ibsen. Acting wise, he does his best, but he plays a part rather than inhabiting it. His rapport with Lawrence is palpable, but it is never really fiery or exciting. Then, there are times when his performance drifts into acting mode and we can see the wheels turning and turning. Making her TheaterWorks debut, Kira Player has been cast as the teenaged Emmy, one of Nora's abandoned children. It's a nice enough part and one the actress is definitely right for. Her emotions are real and properly centered, but Hnath, unfortunately never gives the character room to grow or provides her with ample stage time. She's onstage. Then, she's off. Sadly, it's all rather hurried.

Inspired by the original Henrik Ibsen play about the denunciation of a doomed marriage and its door-slamming denouement, "A Doll's House, Part 2" exists in its own contemplative world as playwright Lucas Hnath pays homage to the 1879 masterwork and offers a newly engaged work in the modern vernacular. Acerbic, provocative, anxious and sometimes pleasurable, "A Doll's House, Part 2" makes for inspired, character-drive theater. It's quick and well-intentioned with some obvious highs, lows and dead spots, here and there. It also leaves you hungry for the real Ibsen piece, a three-act 19th century drama of drama of extraordinary proportions where character, conversation and plot twists toy with your senses, push you over the edge and leave you emotionally drained following the play's justified, thrilling conclusion.

"A Doll's House, Part 2" is being staged at TheaterWorks (233 Pearl St., Hartford, CT), now through February 24.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-7838

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