A Doll's House, Part 2, by Lucas Hnath. Directed by Mary B. Robinson. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Lizbeth Mackay, Kathleen McNenny; photo: Tim Fort
"Knowing I've done really well, what do you think I do?"
The question I am most often asked is this: "Why do you see the same play over and over? Isn't that boring?" A two-part question deserves an answer in kind. "People do the same play, so I must see them to do my work; it's never boring because no two productions solve the problems in the same exact way." That is certainly the case this season wherein two major theaters, Weston Playhouse and Barrington Stage Company are doing back-to-back productions of two shows, "West Side Story" and "A Doll's House, Part Two." The musical I have seen multiple times and the play, now, twice. I didn't see the original Broadway version starring Laurie Metcalf. I am told it was a revelation but I'm not told too much else.
Reportedly a talky event without much toxic or overwhelming emotion, perhaps to signify the Norwegian psychology which historically denies passionate discourse, it was a hit show and won awards. In Weston this sense of the Norwegian dominates the performances. Differences between Nora and Torvald Helmer, characters created in 1879 by Henrik Ibsen, are placed on the seat of a bench that isn't used for much else and looked at coldly. It is clear that both people can dissect from their own points of view the difficulties Nora has brought to their relationship fifteen years earlier when she walked away from marriage and children to find herself and her true place in the world. Director Mary Robinson has stressed the fact that this couple are still the couple they were, only this time around they are as much witnesses to their failings as committers of those failures. She has done this cleanly and with a certain grace, the emotional discharge of disappointment given over to the serving girl, Anne Marie, a commonplace individual who has left her own child to raise first Nora and then Nora's three children. For Nora in Weston's production, exhaustion comes from finally saying a few things that have haunted her for a very long time.
I think this works. However, in the production I saw last month everything was different. Passion, actual passionate reaction, sparks the high emotions that Nora and Torvald have held contained for nearly two decades. Perhaps it is my Mediterranean blood, more given to explosions and depressions, that responded to the exhausting, truly exhausting discourse in my first experience of this play that colors my reactions here. I really do believe that people like this, even cool, dispassionate Norwegians, can not hold in, hold back and hold on in the way that these folks in cool Vermont do in the face of such a reunion. In spite of so much talent, I was less moved, less involved and less interested in the Helmer household this time around.
Kathleen McNenny is a lovely Nora. She has grace, solidity and humor, qualities much needed in the case of a wife who abandons her life and responsibilities. Boyd Gaines has a peculiar shake that gives his Torvald a much needed call for sympathy. He and McNenny bring a cause and effect quality to their conversations that is engaging and holds our attention although it always felt as though at any moment he might strike her.
Margo Seibert as their daughter Emmy, a girl of seventeen who has no real memories of her mother, is sweet and charming and a perfect picture of the Nora who existed before the first act of Ibsen's play (I cannot bring myself to call it 'Part One' as others do). Her scene was well played but to no real effect - again unlike the strong-willed young woman of the other production.
As Anne Marie, a pivotal character, Lizbeth Mackay delivers a knock-out performance and she nearly makes the play be about her and her feelings and life and reactions. This is due, I think, to the writing of the play. It is Anne Marie who elevates this period drama out of period and into the modern world. She is the one passionate creature in the household, a woman has sacrificed herself for the greater good and inspired Nora to take her own actions and make her own way. Now she is angry, not just with Nora for following through, but with herself for bringing that about. Her long involvement with everything Nora allows her to bring much anger, humor, melodrama and unexpected language into the mix. Mackay delivers the drama in the character more than the humor although she gets her laughs as well.
Jason Sims set design is as good as it could be in the new theater space at Weston. Grier Coleman's costumes are perfection and Ann G. Wrightson's lighting, though occasionally quirky, kept focus on the action of the drama. Mary B. Robinson certainly brought these characters to life but their lives are a touch on the dull, uninvolved and disconnected side.
So now you know why I love seeing different productions of the same play. Had I seen these two productions in reverse order I might feel very differently about the whole thing right now. Who knows what a third production might reveal about this play, its characters and their futures? I certainly don't, but I suspect one day I will.
A Doll's House, Part 2 plays at Weston Playhouse's Walker Farm, 705 Main Street, Weston, VT through August 26. For information and tickets go to westonplayhouse.org or call the box office at 802-824-5288.