When Nora left her husband and children in the final scene of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” slamming the door behind her, the reverberations were felt throughout the world.
It was 1879 when Ibsen’s play was first performed and women simply did not do that. They could not survive without a man, legally or financially, let alone emotionally.
The question of what happened to this woman who dared to question the role of wife and mother society had trussed her in has been answered in Lucas Hnath’s new play, “A Doll’s House, Part 2.” It was commissioned in spring 2016 by the South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, California. It premiered on Broadway a year later.
Everyman Repertory Theatre is performing the play at the Camden Opera House through Nov. 24. It is an intense 90-minute show that proves the more people change, the more they stay the same in most ways that matter. This is the first time it has been produced in Maine.
Director David Troup wrings all the humor out of the family’s wounds and lets the modern dialogue Hnath (pronounced nayth) wrote naturally carry the characters into the 21st century despite their lovely and lush 18th century costumes, designed by Elaine Bielenberg. Troup keeps the four characters moving on stage but the sparse set with just a large, looming door and three small wooden chairs allows them at times to be swallowed up by the opera house’s large stage.
As Nora, Jen Hodgson is impatient and indignant when she must return to the home she left years earlier to ask for a favor. She assumed her husband had followed through on his threat to divorce her but learns that he did not. Now her career as a writer, under a pseudonym, is in danger because as a married woman she could not legally sign a contract with her publisher.
Hodgson struggled to remember lines last weekend and left the stage twice apparently to find her place in the script, a highly unusual occurrence in a professional company. Otherwise, she realistically portrays Nora trapped for a second time in a situation not entirely of her making. The actress beautifully balances Nora’s regret for having hurt her children, husband and nanny with her firm belief that leaving was the only way to save her own soul.
Nora’s former nanny Anne Marie, lovingly brought to life by Christine West, provides many of the laughs in the play. Her sharp tongue and rapier wit keep Nora from ever getting the emotional edge on the woman who raised her and her children after that door was slammed. West is equally prickly and loving with Nora but it is the nanny’s resentment of the choices Nora had as a more educated, middle-class woman that rise off of her like steam from a boiling pot of soup and spill over the audience. West gives the most memorable performance in the show.
Erin Christine Walsh is a young actress to watch. She has a natural stage charisma that draws an audience to her like a magnet. Walsh portrays Nora’s daughter Emmy as a young woman full of hope and joy in her future role as wife and mother. She wants to embrace all that Nora found so stifling in marriage. Walsh is so charming in the role that theatergoers almost, but never quite, are able to believe the culture of the 19th century will spare Emmy her mother’s fate.
As Nora’s husband, Torvald, Paul Hodgson’s performance is a study in anger and agony. He has spent years denying that his wife left him. Torvald told people Nora took ill and died. The actor, who is married to Jen Hodgson off stage as well, gives a nuanced performance of a man surprised by his conflicted emotions at seeing his wife again.
Nathan Davis’ original music, coupled with 1960s and 1970s pop songs, including “Respect,” “I Will Survive” and “These Boots Were Made for Walking,” emphasize the play’s themes of female independence and underscore the trap that marriage can become for some women.
Although Hnath wrote the play before the #metoo movement took flight, he tapped into that just-below-the-surface anger and resentment by revisiting Nora’s story. Everyman Repertory Theatre is offering Maine audiences a rare change to see a new play that taps into the zeitgeist of the moment before it becomes history. The slamming of this door is not to be missed.
Everyman Repertory Theatre will perform “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17 and 24, Friday, Nov. 23, and at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 18, at the Camden Opera House, 29 Elm St., Camden. For information, call 236-0173 or visit https://www.everymanrep.org.