Two years ago, for the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in America, the University of Oregon produced A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen. The Norwegian dramatist’s shocking feminist play has remained one of the world’s most-produced dramas since its premiere in 1879.
Oregon Contemporary Theatre planned to follow the UO show with a production of a 2017 “sequel” by Lucas Hnath called A Doll’s House, Part 2. But along came COVID, and OCT had to put the show on indefinite hold. Now, two years later, the 90-minute show has finally opened — and it was well worth the wait.
If you were lucky enough to see the superb UO production of Ibsen’s play at the Robinson Theatre, you will be fascinated by the continuation of the tale, a clever, profound comedy sprung from the fertile brain of a rising American playwright. If you have never seen the Ibsen play, you will nevertheless be able to understand everything that happens in Part 2, which provides just enough references to the original story to allow clear comprehension.
In Ibsen’s play, Nora Helmer is a restless wife trapped in a bourgeois marriage to a stolid banker, who treats her like a mindless doll. Unable to gain her husband’s respect, at the end of the play she famously strides out the front door and slams it behind her, never expecting to return.
At the beginning of Part 2, set 15 years later, we hear a persistent knocking on the oversized door. No one opens it. More knocking. Finally a wizened old peasant woman in heavy boots limps to the door and drags it open. She is Ann Marie, Nora’s childhood nanny, who has also raised Nora’s three abandoned children, now grown. At first she pleasantly welcomes Nora, but soon she is swearing at her for selfishly screwing up all their lives.
Nora notices that the house is virtually empty of furniture and decorations. Onstage are only two chairs, a small bench and a tiny table. The terra cotta walls bear faint outlines of missing paintings. Ann Marie gloats that they threw out all of Nora’s things.
When Nora’s husband, Torvald, arrives, he is struck speechless and rushes to the bathroom. Why did Nora come back? She tells Torvald that she learned he had never divorced her, as she had expected. He was too cowardly, too ashamed, and she supposes he was hoping she’d die young. But Nora has been quite successful writing feminist books under a pseudonym, and she owns property. However, by not being divorced, she is breaking Norwegian law of that era, when married women weren’t allowed to own property or start a business, and anything she earned could be claimed by her husband. If she herself were to file for divorce, she would have to produce evidence that would ruin Torvald’s career and reputation, which she doesn’t want to do. It is he who must get a spine and file for divorce.
In some aspects, Part 2 is just as shocking as the original. Nora and Torvald, who were incapable of having adult conversations when they were married, are now speaking aloud their deepest, most secret thoughts about marriage and children, freedom and respect, and the possibility of forging a uniquely fulfilling identity. The sharp, modern dialogue stings like a wasp while also making us laugh.
As directed by Tara Wibrew, this production is truly a polished gem. The timing is impeccable, as is the balance between heartbreak and humor. Vanessa Greenway gives us a dazzling, complex Nora who is spirited and witty, blunt but sensitive. Dan Pegoda as Torvald also reveals multiple layers as he strives to comprehend and possibly rectify his failures.
Rebecca Nachison (listed in the program as R.L. Nachison) is a delightful Ann Marie. She can get a laugh merely by tilting her head. Alessandra Ferriso plays Nora’s 19-year-old daughter Emmy as a cunning combination of her mother and father, choosing values from each that suit her needs as she perceives them.
The script, direction, acting and design elements combine to offer an exceptionally satisfying theatrical experience that will be difficult to surpass.
A Doll’s House, Part 2 is playing at Oregon Contemporary Theatre through March 27; times and tickets through OCTheatre.org or 541-465-1506.