Swirling ‘Sequel’ to A Doll’s House Provokes Incisive Thought

Nora (Rachel Buttram) tries to explain to her daughter Emmy (Yasmine Harrell) the philosophy she has evolved since walking out 15 years earlier in A Doll’s House Part 2 at GableStage / Photos by Magnus Stark

By Bill Hirschman

The intense and dense cyclonic swirl of ideas expertly delivered in GableStage’s production of Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House Part 2 is the theatrical embodiment of the much-used term “thought-provoking.”

This deep-diving examination of all human relationships – but especially the yin and yang of marriage – is some of the best work gifted at GableStage since Bari Newport inherited the mantle of producing artistic director.

She and her team of artists on-stage and off have molded an overwhelmingly complex and engaging vision that mines more deeply in the revealed complexities of post-feminism than nearly any other theatrical endeavor.

The premise is that Nora, who slammed the door as she walked out on her husband and children at the end of Ibsen’s 1879 classic, returns 15 years later.

She has constructed a new life as a successful pseudonymed writer of women’s fiction based on her own life and proselytizing her evolving belief of women’s rights – particularly that marriage is not prerequisite to a fulfilled life.

But she has discovered that her banker husband Torvald never actually divorced her; he has just pretended to the world that she died. As a still married woman on paper, her independent lifestyle and choices have now put her in several kinds of peril including financial ruin, reputational ruin and even prison, according to the laws of that time. She has come to ask Torvald to file for divorce because the laws of the day also make it nearly impossible for a woman to successfully initiate a divorce.

But Torvald doesn’t want to help her, for numerous reasons.  Anne Marie, the salt-of-the-earth prole housekeeper who nursed Nora and then raised Nora’s children after she left, isn’t particularly supportive.

Her youngest daughter Emmy, now in her early 20s, happily engaged, with as sharp and incisive a mind as her mother, has thought through some of these issues and has chosen a conventional future in the current paradigm. She capably punches holes in Nora’s vision.

What occurs over 90 minutes is a series of one-on-one debates and confrontations fraught with angst, philosophy and considerable wry humor. Threaded throughout are issues of responsibility, consequences, gender roles and a half-dozen other topics. But under it all are serious questions for the audience to weigh: whether the oppressive sexism of the 19th Century still echoes today, and whether the unfettered freedom you cede to have a relationship is actually worth what is gained in the coupling.

The final moment of the piece ends the only way it can, but no one ends up the way they started, least of all the audience with the preconceptions it brought into the room

Ostensibly, this occurs a few years before the turn of the century and the characters are wearing period appropriate clothing. But Hnath – and especially Newport – erase any time period via the social philosophies, the language, the deportment, even to having the opening and then scene changes marked by the 19-century-suited characters briefly jerk dancing to techno club-pounding drums. The script has characters speak in rhythms and idioms and a few curse words that you might hear in your own living room.

Newport’s direction is outstanding, from molding and pacing this intricate journey, to the physical staging, which invisibly uses the full expanse of GableStage’s infamously wide and shallow space. While people are conversing 95 percent of the evening, rarely are people stationary for long except when someone sits down with someone else to use proximity as a tool for their goal.

All of the characters are speaking directly to each other to try to convince the others of the validity of their position. But Newport has them regularly break the fourth wall and talk to the audience as parties to be persuaded, even regularly striding into the aisles to embed the patrons in their arena of debate.

Intentionally, the evening moves at a steady pace, so Hnath’s unrestrained torrent after torrent of concepts rolls over the audience with little time to cogitate on them. For those with the yen, it might be interesting to get a copy of the script and analyze what is being said – much as the Newport and the cast must have had to do.

The cast is as solid as you could ask for. Brendan Powers’ tall embodiment of status quo doesn’t mask Torvald’s self-doubts nor his period-accurate confusion that a loving husband would have over the changing world Nora envisions. Yasmine Harrell, a New World School of the Arts grad in her professional debut, creates the seemingly perfect beneficiary of Nora’s ethos who logically and precisely dismantles its applicability to her person. And, as always, Elizabeth Dimon is simply wonderful as the pragmatic clear-eyed retainer.

But in a performance patrons should paste in the memory book, Rachel Burttram’s Nora is a masterpiece of energy, drive, imagination and an ever-spinning kaleidoscope of emotions. One of Burttram’s triumphant strengths (true of her colleagues as well) is her face is always reacting to what is being said, either by others or upon hearing what she herself is saying. Her mouth, eyes, even her eyebrows, are clearly readable mirrors for what the wide array of what Nora is thinking and feeling for the full 90 minutes.

Burttram and Powers are a married couple in real life who often worked at Florida Repertory Theatre in Fort Myers and were slated to do the play there just before Covid closed the venue. A streaming version of the dress rehearsal won acclaim from Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout.

Jacquelyn Loy and Camilla Haith’s multi-layered, elegant costumes are the crucial and solitary period-setting element. Frank J. Oliva has created an intentionally featureless environment consisting of large white walls and ceiling (plus the essential double-door dead center) upon which projection designer Jamie Godwin casts various fleeting contemporary imagery. It might not be especially noticed by the audience, but Tony Galaska’s subtle lighting changes are telling throughout.

Hnath (born in Orlando) is among the rising stars in the playwriting world. This critic has seen and been a fan of his The Christians, The Thin Place, Red Speedo, A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney (all produced in South Florida) and Death Tax – not one of which is much like the others.

Well, except in his vibrant dissection of The Human Comedy. And that’s worth our investment of time as well.

A Doll’s House Part 2 plays through March 19 at GableStage in the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables. 2 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday; 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Running time 90 minutes with no intermission. Tickets $35-$60 plus fees. Rush Tickets –45 minutes prior to performance times, students of all ages may fill any unsold seat, free-of-charge. Student ID required. Streaming will be available beginning the week after opening for $27.  The streaming will begin at the same time as the show. It will not be on demand. Call 305-445-1119 or visit gablestage.org

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