How do I love this play? Let me count the ways.
My colleague David Siegel’s review heaps accolades on the Round House Theatre production of Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2, now playing at the Lansburgh. Indeed the impeccable direction (Nicole A. Watson), the inspired design (Paige Hathaway, set; Helen Huang, costumes; Harold F. Burgess II, lighting; Roc Lee, sound), and the four starring performances (Nancy Robinette, Holly Twyford, Kathryn Tkel, and Craig Wallace) comprise one of those thrilling peak experiences in theater that one remembers for years after.
But it was the writing that burned into my brain the most. Hnath’s script can be gut-busting funny—and the laughs are smart, never cheap—but at its core, the play is a scorching explication of what it takes and what it costs for a woman to own her own self in a world defined by men.
Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House attempted as much 140 years ago. Nora’s epically controversial exit—when she walks out of her suffocating marriage to Torvald, leaving three children behind—became the door slam heard round the world. It incited arguments for decades and presaged Betty Friedan’s 1963 critique of “the problem that has no name”: the hidden unhappiness of middle-class housewife-mothers.
Very like Ibsen before him, Hnath as a pro-woman male playwright has imagined and articulated the inner life of a fictional female, Nora, with remarkable sensitivity and verisimilitude.
Hnath’s sequel begins 15 years after Nora’s exit in the same upper-middle-class home with a knock on the double door upstage. She’s baaack. We find out why (she thought Torvald filed for divorce; he didn’t; she needs him to). We find out what Nora has been up to (she relished life alone for a while then had numerous lovers). We find out who she has become (a famous, financially secure feminist novelist, writing under a pseudonym).
Hnath’s plotting of the backstory is fascinating.
And we realize the stakes for this self-determining woman are still steep, civil inequality still undermines her independence, she is still threatened with penalties that prosper male supremacy. Somehow I don’t think Ibsen would be rolling in his grave at what Hnath has done. I think he would be applauding. He might even be in awe.
In the first scene, between Nora (Twyford) and Anne Marie (Robinette), we learn that Nora now has a politics explicitly grounded in her personal:
NORA: I no longer see a reason for marriage
I think that women who are not happy in their marriages should refuse to honor the contract and leave…
Marriage is cruel, and it destroys women’s lives
Nora not only believes this; she espouses this, in a book that has become a best-seller. Anne Marie—the nanny who raised Nora then brought up Nora’s three children after she abandoned them—proceeds to puncture the class privilege in Nora’s pronouncement:
ANNE MARIE: I didn’t have a father with money like you had a father with money, I didn’t have the same options you had. Do you think I wanted to leave my home and become a nanny? My options were—what—working in a factory and wearing my body down to the point of uselessness at an early age, or I could go out and be a prostitute
In a subsequent scene, Nora meets her youngest child, Emmy (Tkel), now an assertive, self-possessed young woman. And here Hnath introduces a generation divide that sounds a lot like tensions today between so-called second-wave and third-wave feminism. Emmy, who is engaged, rejects Nora’s condemnation of marriage outright:
EMMY: I want to be held. I want to be possessed. I want to be somebody’s something— I can see you cringe when I say what I’m saying. But that’s about you, and it’s not about me, and I’m telling you what I want, and you may want something different for yourself, but don’t make my wants about your wants
I mention these two points in the script because they illustrate an impressive political dimensionality in Hnath’s play that doesn’t get a lot of attention. As predicted by its premise, A Doll’s House, Part 2 cuts into gender inequalities and simmering male-female resentments with a scalpel—the scenes on the subject between Nora and Torvald (Wallace) are scalding, and when in the last scene they almost duke it out, their contretemps gets so explosive they as much as stop the show. But it is Hnath’s artful incorporation of class and generational conflict that really rounds out a brilliantly conscious work of theater.
Running time: About 95 minutes with no intermission