Doors into the unknown: IRT's 'A Doll's House Part 2' takes up Nora's story 15 years after famous departure

Torvald leans in to make himself clear to Nora.
The natural feature of Norway best-known to the world is its fjords — narrow waterways to the sea that typically pass between steep cliffs. A brief online search of fjord images indicates that the definitive "steep cliffs" aren't inevitably a feature, and these more gradual bordering slopes are crucial to Ann Sheffield's scenic design for
"A Doll's House Part 2," the Lucas Hnath drama that Indiana Repertory Theatre opened Friday night.

That communicates a lot of the meaning of this cheeky sequel to Henrik Ibsen's 1879 realistic tragedy of the collapse of a middle-class Norwegian marriage. The vistas awaiting Nora Helmer as she escapes from a role she finds disrespectful and confining vary ambiguously from the closed-in feeling of her domestic life to the promise of something more open, reaching to the sky.

The production's beautiful backdrop, with the deceptively gentle mountains bordering the water on both sides, is the mute natural frame for Nora's fate. The house that she left 15 years before is shockingly minimal in its
Returning home, Nora explains her long absence to Anne Marie.
furnishings. Between the visible outdoors and the oddly institutional appearance of the Helmer home's interior, we almost get all we need to know about what Part 2 has to communicate. Individually grasped liberty under restrictive social mores can be barren. In Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialist formulation, we are condemned to freedom.

Director James Still takes an approach both playful and stark in the movement of the play's four characters: The returning Nora and her desperate agenda, her abandoned husband Torvald, the couple's daughter Emmy, and the household's longtime nanny and housekeeper Anne Marie. Their conversational maneuvers involve shifting chairs around like chess pieces, trying to regulate a proximity to each other that matches their words and suits their moods.

The circumstances of Nora's departure have upended family life and the Helmer reputation in their small town.
With difficulty the fleeing wife and mother has painfully crafted a good living as a feminist writer under a pseudonym; the reason for her return, though it's revealed early, is so crucial that spoiler etiquette forbids me to divulge it here. The surprises with which Hnath lards his script are well-distributed and fortunately too well-grounded to strain credulity: Revelation of the sort of person Emmy has turned out to be as a young adult is a paradigm shift. When it comes, the feeling is not dismayingly obvious, but entirely natural. Hnath has thoroughly processed his great predecessor's uncanny skill at dissecting why people act the way they do.

He does so with a startling blend of raw emotional upheaval and manic comedy. He allows the four  — particularly Torvald and Nora as they rake over and stoke the embers of their long-dying marriage — to give vent to temper tantrums that skirt the edge of sit-com blowups today's audiences are familiar with. Obscene insults and foot-stamping find their way into elaborately well-articulated arguments. Whatever shocks Ibsen provided to audiences of his day are updated commandingly in the new play's language and this production's  detailed gestures, tense pauses, and frenetic movement. In character the actors occasionally address the audience, intensely broadening their arguments, as if to say "Can I get an amen?!"

At the summit of the virtuoso performances is Tracy Michelle Arnold's portrayal of Nora. The character's range of emotions, from her confident anti-marriage exposition in the first scene to the tortured neediness so variously evident later, get free rein. Yet there's never the sense that the characterization is off the rails or scattershot in its focus; there is an undeniable through line from entrance to exit. Arnold's Nora is neither a ninny nor a Nestor, but something infinitely more complex. Again, taking care to avoid specifics, let me simply indicate that her exit confirms and extends the tragic dimensions of the original play.

Becca Brown plays the Helmers' self-possessed daughter.
As Torvald, Nathan Hosner matches Arnold angst for angst. Torvald's discomfort at the unexpected return of his estranged wife sends seismic waves out from the stage. His face registered it all, lips curling and uncurling, cheek muscle twitching. Self-consciousness attains new heights, and Torvald talks about it, of course. Hosner also  caught  the comical dimension of an alpha male's insecurity in a world about to change into the 20th century's emergence of feminism. Critiques of marriage had been already launched in the turmoil of Ibsen's era, and the sequel's updated language forges a bond with progressive notions that were bubbling up many decades before sexual liberation was pharmaceutically enabled.

Becca Brown conveyed Emmy's blunt appraisal of her mother's behavior and its effects on the family. For the most part, Emmy is a cool customer, but Brown shifted into the character's emotional overdrive easily. Kim Staunton moved beyond the long-suffering maid stereotype she embodied at first to complete the four-sided exhibition of personal resentments and grievances, meeting fire with fire.

Alex Jaeger's costume designs were rich in period atmosphere, and the actors wore them magnificently, despite the flopping about required of Hosner and Arnold. Michelle Habeck's lighting and Tom Horan's sound complemented the action — assisting its dips and swirls, its soaring and plunging — at every turn. Besides being condemned to freedom, the people in "A Doll's House Part 2" helplessly live out another Sartrean condemnation: Hell is other people.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]


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