Friday, December 7, 2018

REVIEW: TAUT, RIVETING SEQUEL TO CLASSIC DRAMA CRACKLES @ GEORGE STREET PLAYHOUSE

by Ruth Ross

When Nora Helmer walked out on her husband and children in the final scene of Henrik Ibsen’s classic drama A Doll’s House, the sound of the slamming door reverberated throughout Europe. Audiences hailed Ibsen as feminist, he disavowed the honor, saying that while “it is desirable to solve the women’s problem. . . .[my] task has been the description of humanity.” Although many have wondered just how Nora got on in the world without the protection and guidance of her husband, several modern playwrights taken to writing a sequel, the most recent being Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2, now onstage in an elegant, eloquent, riveting, often funny production at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick.

Hnath’s version has Nora returning to her husband’s home 15 years after that door slammed. Since her departure, Torvald has let the townsfolk—and his children—believe Nora is dead, despite their being no death certificate on file in the public records. More concerning for Nora, however, is the fact that Torvald failed to divorce her, leaving her, in essence, still married to him, an inconvenient fact given that she’s become a famous, successful author (under a pseudonym), has signed contracts and has had affairs—none of which would have been possible had they still been wed—rendering her a criminal. When her semi-autobiographical novel prompts a wife to leave her husband, who then blackmails Nora for “pretending” to be unwed, she returns to ask Torvald to file for the divorce (which a man can do quite easily). If Nora files, she’ll have to prove Torvald did something that prompted her to seek a divorce and reveal details that could ruin him. (Above, Andrew Garman and Kellie Overbey share a rueful moment)

Over the course of a day, the two wrangle over this knotty problem, a situation made even more fraught when Nora attempts to enlist her daughter Emmy to convince her father to do it. Will Torvald acquiesce to his wife and daughter, or will Nora have to find another way to clear her name and regain her post-departure reputation? That’s the problem Hnath has set himself to solve in 105 taut minutes. (Left: Overbey and Lily Santiago)

It’s a testimony to Betsy Aidem’s superior direction of a talented quartet of actors that a plot consisting entirely of dialogue manages to feel exciting. Indeed, the very air crackles with tension as Nora goes head-to-head with the other three, all worthy adversaries who give as good as they get. In her red gown—the only spot of color in an otherwise drab palette—Kellie Overbey’s Nora (right) is hard to ignore, even though Torvald amusingly manages to do so when he returns home to retrieve some papers. Overbey’s very persuasive, especially during Nora’s verbal duels with Torvald, making a case against the prevailing patriarchal view of marriage and enlisting our sympathy for the dilemma in which she finds herself. Initially, Andrew Garman portrays Torvald as stiff necked and unapologetic about his mistreatment of Nora; however, his subsequent admission that he would have liked to have worked out their marriage gives us a glimpse into his point-of-view and raises our sympathy for him. Interestingly, despite not having grown up with Nora in her life, Lily Santiago’s Emmy is every inch the woman as her mother, despite her yearning  for a respectable marriage much like the one Nora abandoned. She argues fiercely with Nora, calls her out for leaving and bemoans the fact that the only reason her mother wants to see her is “to fix a problem.” It’s Emmy who comes up with the solution Torvald later offers to Nora. And Ann McDonough (left)is appropriately crusty as nanny Anne Marie, who is not above berating her mistress for leaving her to raise the children and care for Torvald. McDonough moves like an old, arthritic woman, but the fire in her eyes flashes when she’s finally roused to anger.

Deb O’s scenic design conveys the effect of neglect on the Helmer house/household since Nora left; the paint looks dirty and dusty, as do the piano and chairs. Rick Fisher’s lighting design conveys the passage of time through the single window in the room; Mark Bennett has composed original music reminiscent of the 1890s that harkens back to Nora’s playing the instrument. A bell tolls the hours, even as it presages the real death of the Helmer marriage. Olivera Gagic’s costumes evoke the period and echo the dullness of the Helmers’ lives as opposed to the vibrant existence led by Nora during the past 15 years.

Will Nora accept Emmy/Torvald’s scheme to solve the problem facing everyone? You’ll have to wait until the final scene to find out. You may be surprised, but her decision is in keeping with the character Hnath has created and is quite satisfying. You don’t have to be familiar with Ibsen’s play to enjoy Part 2; Hnath gives enough background to appreciate the dilemma in which Torvald and Nora find themselves. If you love literature, drama, fine acting and direction, and ideas, you won’t want to miss A Doll’s House, Part 2.

A Doll’s House, Part 2 will be performed at the George Street Playhouse’s temporary location, 103 College Farm Road, New Brunswick, through December 23. For information and tickets, visit www.GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org online or call the box office at 732.246.7717.