A Doll's House, Part 2, by Lucas Hnath. Directed by Joe Calarco. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Laila Robins, Mary Stout; photo: Daniel Rader
"Being with people. . .does it have to be so hard?"
Laila Robins as Nora; photo: Daniel Rader
Nora Helmer returns home after 15 years, after the slamming the door on her husband, children, servants and the life she has led for eight years at the very end of Henrik Ibsen's play "A Doll's House." Nothing is as she remembers it, nothing that is except her husband Torvald and her servant Anne Marie. Nora has moved on in so many ways; she has a career, a place in the world that is uniquely her own, a life that includes lovers and excludes marital restraints. She is a happy woman with one glaring exception: her husband has never filed their divorce papers. After fifteen years she is still tied to him legally and this puts her in professional and personal jeopardy. Her trip back to their home together carries consequences. It is not a pleasure jaunt nor a trip down memory lane. In the course of Lucas Hnath's play, "A Doll's House, Part 2" her sojourn carries heavy weights and achieves heavy results. It is a comedy.
On the Boyd-Quinson Main Stage at Barrington Stage Company Nora is played by the exquisite Laila Robins, an actress who seemingly can do no wrong, even when her character does. Robins has never seemed so feminine before. Nor has she seemed so completely in control of herself. Even when Nora breaks down, when hysterics rule the moment, Robins portrayal of her has a sense of the absolute about it. I found throughout the show that I could not take my eyes off her. Dressed in lush burgundy in 1894, Nora is on the brink of a new century, one she conceives as possessing the magic of absolute change. She projects a 30 to 40 year transition into the era of free women. She feels the urgent needs of her kind to enforce new laws that favor her gender. She pre-witnesses the roaring twenties and its liberation.
Mary Stout; photo: Daniel Rader
Nora is on the right course and Robins charts it magnificently. Her bodily stance, her aggressive posture, her haughty expression in a beautiful face, her perfect hair, even her use of gloves gives this Nora all the qualities that Ibsen's Nora suspected she possessed. This is a stellar performance in a play that gives her so many opportunities to prove what a fine actress can do with a character like Nora.
Matching her in a different way is Mary Stout playing the housekeeper Anne Marie. Stout is hilarious and very touching in her best moments, sometimes both simultaneously. This actress knows what "jolly" means in every sense of the word and she gets those widely varied definitions across beautifully. A victim of shared loyalties, Anne Marie gives an actress scope to play any or all of them and still get the laughs and experience the empathy of an audience. Stout begins the transition from the stilted sense of translation into the actual translation into 21st century sensibility in language and she makes that seem so right that as others fall into contemporary vernacular it all feels appropriate and ntatural. Stout carries the standard and the others fall in line behind her. Her work in this play is truly amazing. What a joy to have her in our midst.
In her scenes with Robins there is an implied tenderness that transforms with a pent-up, long suppressed anger into harsh reality. Even with that, Stout cannot sustain anger as long as there is a way to find humor in the worst of situations. I would say that watching her is a lesson in acting except for the fact that everything she does, and every word she says, seems so very much in keeping with the moment that her natural reactions and changes make us feel like flies on a wall in a real home.
Ashley Bufkin; photo: Daniel Rader
Anne Marie brings Nora's daughter Emmy into the picture; she is an 1894 "fixer" who can solve the puzzles of Nora's continued existence. Played here by Ashley Bufkin, Emmy is more than just a fixer; she has an agenda long lodged in her soul regarding her mother and given the opportunity to explore it Emmy takes great delight in stepping into something that should never engage her. Bufkin has both a lovely face and a lovely voice and she uses them judiciously to create a memorable young woman for whom revenge is the only solution to a youth spent wondering what is real and what is a lie.
Watching the actress manipulating the situation is pure delight and she is the Princess of it. Emmy has been raised by Anne Marie in a household filled with men and boys. Presumably never pampered she has come to grips with how men do things and finally given the chance to step up to the plate, so to speak, she takes massive swings at a ball that cannot be missed. Bufkin is just lovely in the role. She plays strength with a smile and hate with an embracing gesture. It is a joy to watch her turn into Robins daughter, into Nora's child. She has no need to emulate Nora's line for she has one of her own and it is the reverse of everything Nora stands for. Their scene together is emotionally devastating as Emmy turns from pure joy to dominatix in the making. Bufkin makes this transition slowly and surely and it is fun to watch the change happen.
Christopher Innvar as Torvald; photo: Daniel Rader
Caught in the muck and mire of manipulative mammarists, Torvald, played by Christopher Innvar, has only himself to blame as he literally bounces off the walls in the oval entryway to his home where the play takes place. Innvar has never been better than he is in this play and he is wonderful. He handles his recognition of Nora brilliantly, slowly, with hostility and heart-break and honor. His second scene with her, when he tries to do what he believes is best for them both, thereby engaging her in another discussion of men and women and their place in societal behavior, is a long horror show of emotion and speculation. If we had a second doorslam to count (Nora slams this door in the earlier play as she leaves her husband behind) we might say that in spite of all Torvald's aching need to do right, he loses the battle. But a soft door closing leaves us some speculative moments at the end of this play.
Innvar and Robins are lovely together. They make a pretty picture of an insecure couple locked in an eternal struggle for domination and control. They are a fine blending of stand-up figures; you can actually envision them on the top of a large wedding cake. They make a suitable pair of foes battling out their differences in a public arena. They play the difficult swerve of personality disorders. I could believe that Innvar's Torvald wanted to change and at the same time knew that deep down he dreaded the idea. Likewise for Robins.
Joe Calarco has done superb work with this play and with his excellent cast. With Hnath's lovely script he steps out in the forefront of Barringson Stage directors, surpassing his excellent work on "Ragtime" and "Romance in Hard Times" in previous seasons. Brian Prather's set is curious and so wonderfully contains the protaganists that it is ideal for this play. One window would turn this prison cell of a foyer into a monstrosity. Instead we have the circus ring in which these acts play out.
Joe Caprio's costumes and J. Jared Janas's wigs go a long way to projecting the characters who wear them. Chris Lee's lighting is straightforward and clean. Under Calaraco's vision of the work all the elements work in tight harness to produce an unforgettable evening of theater. No one can expect more nor have his expectations met with such clarity and correctness. And who knows, perhaps the playwright is on the right track and in 30 or 40 years women will have the rights and the respect they should have had from Nora's time and even earlier. This play makes me a fan and a hearty rooter!
A Doll's House, Part 2 plays at Barrington Stage Company's Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, 30 Union Street, Pittsfield, MA through July 28. For information and tickets go on line to barringtonstageco.org or call the box office at 413-236-8888.