Mia Katigbak and Maggie Bofill

Knock Knock

Nora is back. On her way out the door 15 years ago, the heroine of Henrik Ibsen’s classic play A Doll’s House (1879) may have overturned the single armchair we see onstage at the opening of A Doll’s House, Part 2 at Long Wharf Theatre. Now someone is knocking at the door, and it’s up to the aged nanny, Anne Marie, to open it.

The door is tall—as tall as the set—and narrow. Its shape casts a broadening wedge of light downstage. So, too, the trouble for Nora and her family broadens as the action of A Doll’s House, Part 2 unfolds. Nora left her husband, Torvald Helmer, and their three children in order to assert her independence. She has returned not because she wishes to see them again nor to make amends but because she needs something: a divorce.

sponsored by

Capturing Life and Beauty: Women Artists of the New Haven Paint & Clay Club at the New Haven Museum

It seems Torvald never followed through on their tacit agreement, made with a reverse exchange of wedding rings at the end of A Doll’s House, that he would file for one. The law won’t allow Nora to divorce him herself without lying about his treatment of her, but—for reasons that will be revealed—she needs that divorce. Lying to get one is a possibility. Torvald has told his own lies. And their grown daughter, Emmy, meeting her mother for the first time, has a deceitful plan and a problem of her own. The complications in this sequel echo “Part 1,” centering on reputations, secrets, the law and blackmail.

It takes some time to settle into this new Doll’s House. If it’s been 15 years since Nora’s departure, that lands us in the 1890s. At the same time, we suspect we may be in the current day. Nora’s long skirt is actually a full-legged pair of pants; Emmy’s bustled skirt is cut at the knees and paired with black punk rock boots. The characters curse 21st-century style. Most of all, much of what they say about men and women and marriage is au courant. Women have the right to file for their own divorces today, of course, but a mother leaving her children is still taboo, and though Nora doesn’t use the word “mansplaining,” it’s part of what makes her angry.

Also unsettling at first is the stylized, halting delivery of dialogue. This is partly for comic effect; there are plenty of laugh lines to slice through the gravity. But playwright Lucas Hnath and director Will Davis also seem to be signaling to us how hard it is to talk honestly about marriage and emotions in general.

While Ibsen’s Torvald is patronizing and selfish, Hnath’s Torvald in the hands of actor Jorge Cordova is more sympathetic. He’s still pretty clueless and emotionally distant, but he wants to do the right thing. Even when his selfish nature resurfaces, there’s an element of pathos to the man who despaired after losing his wife and was unable to bring himself to marry again. “It’s just so hard, all of this being with people,” he complains, giving voice to a feeling that, judging by the laughter, hit home for much of the audience.

Sasha Diamond (Emmy) gives a remarkable performance as Torvald and Nora’s young adult daughter, belying her reassuring words to her mother about the advantage of learning life’s tough lessons early on with awkward, compulsive movements that tell us how devastating her mother’s abandonment really was.

As Nora, Maggie Bofill has the most demanding role. Once she enters, she never leaves the stage. In fact, she refuses to leave until her divorce has been granted. It’s not entirely believable that this hard-edged, fearless Nora who delivers philosophical monologues about marriage is the same woman who once was so pleased with her Christmas purchases and who playfully responded to her husband’s paternalistic doting. We’re told the old Nora was all just an act, but then to what extent should we believe this one? And if we don’t entirely believe her, are we implicated in exactly the system she’s railing against on behalf of all women?

It’s Anne Marie, loyal but no pushover as portrayed by Mia Katigbak, who most earns our admiration. From the opening, Hnath cleverly aligns her with the audience. When Nora presses her for her expectations—what does she think Nora has been doing all these years?—she guesses at first the stereotypical things many of us might guess of an unattached woman at that time with a mysterious source of income. Is Nora a dancer? (No.) Oh, dear, a prostitute? (Also no.) Anne Marie is the only one who can get along with everyone, but she’s not afraid to express her exasperation, particularly with Nora, whom she raised before raising Nora’s children. Nora points out that Anne Marie left her own daughter to raise the Helmer children. It wasn’t because she wanted to, Anne Marie scolds Nora. It was because she had to. She still doesn’t have the same choices Nora has. It’s a piercing critique that the feminist movement struggles with even today, and it’s the only moment when Nora backs down.

Arnulfo Maldonado’s intriguing set adds its own silent commentary on the action of A Doll’s House, Part 2. Ibsen’s original play begins in winter, on Christmas Eve, in “a room furnished comfortably and tastefully.” Now it is summer. Green moss hangs from a pergola and lush plants edge the stage, suggesting what we soon learn: that Nora has flourished in her new life outside of this house. Or perhaps the jungle-like setting is intended to mirror the tangled mess the Helmers are in. Are we in a living room? On a patio? Everything seems “inside out.”

The birds we hear both remind us of the “little skylark” Nora once was to Torvald and show us who she is today. Each time Torvald enters, they screech, and he flaps his own long tailcoat, birdlike, to chase them off. When a fly buzzes in, Nora claps it high between her hands in an echo of the wild tarantella she danced in the original story.

Ibsen’s A Doll’s House “caused a great scandal when it was first produced,” we’re told in the program. A Doll’s House, Part 2 is unlikely to do the same. It’s taking up issues we’ve become accustomed to talking about. What’s somewhat shocking is that we’re still talking about them at all. Nora’s vision of a world in which no one will marry, and women (and men) will be free to enter and leave relationships at will is still relatively unimaginable, regardless of whether it’s desirable—Emmy argues convincingly that it’s not. But we find ourselves 140 years later still attached to the traditional roles Nora strains against. That makes A Doll’s House, Part 2 worth talking about after the play’s over. With a little bit of effort, it might help us get past our own halting dialogue to a meaningful conversation.

A Doll’s House, Part 2
Long Wharf Theatre – 222 Sargent Dr, New Haven (map)
through May 26
(203) 787-4282

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by T. Charles Erickson for Long Wharf Theatre.

More Stories