When it was first produced in 1879, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House" was an international sensation, both for its groundbreaking use of prose (rather than verse) and its controversial subject matter. The play, dealing with an unhappy married woman named Nora Helmer who leaves her husband and children in the final moments of the story, boldly dared to question the role and fate of women in a society that prevents them from achieving self-fulfillment.
Because of its proto-feminist themes, "A Doll's House" has remained a perennial favorite on the contemporary stage, consistently produced around the world. In 2017, New York playwright Lucas Hnath stepped in to craft the play's unauthorized sequel, "A Doll's House, Part 2," which had an acclaimed Broadway run.
Now, Austin's Hyde Park Theater has mounted a new production of Hnath's work, playing through March 30. Picking up 15 years after the ending of Ibsen's play, "A Doll's House, Part 2" portrays what happens when Nora returns to the house and family she left behind in order to obtain an official divorce from her husband, Torvald, which she needs in order to continue her free, unencumbered life as a feminist novelist.
The most engaging aspects of Hnath's text are the ways in which he deals with the lingering aftermath of Nora's moral stand. Whereas Ibsen ends the story at the moment of dramatic departure, Hnath explores the lives of those left behind as well as of a woman trying to make her own life in a world dead-set against such a thing. Not only does she find herself still caught up in patriarchal restrictions — revealing that the forces opposed to women's freedom go much deeper than just the institution of marriage — but she also must face the fact that, to her family, what she did was an act not of survival, but of selfishness.
Director Ken Webster has assembled a talented foursome of performers for this production — Katherine Catmull as Nora, Tom Green as Torvald, Sarah Chong Harmer as their daughter, Emmy, and Cyndi Williams as the family maid, Anne Marie. Though all four acquit themselves well in this straightforward, no frills staging, Harmer, a relative newcomer to the Austin stage, shines brightest because hers is the most subtle character in the text.
Whereas Nora, Torvald, and Anne Marie are very outward-facing characters, speaking in declarative, didactic lectures (presumably in an homage to Ibsen's style) and showing their emotional turns on the surface, Emmy is somewhat more mysterious, and it's a delight watching Harmer switch between curiosity, charm and anger as she attempts to achieve her own, unknown goals.
Though certainly a well put together text — and a solid production — that does justice to the themes of Ibsen's original while taking into consideration more modern issues of gender parity, "A Doll's House, Part 2" does lack the element of playful black humor and biting edginess that is at the heart of Hyde Park Theater's best work. Nonetheless, it is a must-see for fans of the original play as well as a thoughtful, provocative questioning of potentially harmful institutions that we still take for granted to this day.
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