“So to conduct one’s life as to realize oneself—this seems to me the highest attainment possible to a human being. It is the task of one and all of us, but most of us bungle it.” – Henrik Ibsen

 

In 1879 Henrik Ibsen’s Nora Helmer slammed the door, scandalously leaving her home, family and name to find her true self.

A century and a quarter later, playwright Lucas Hnath wonders what happened not only to Nora, but to the husband, children and home she left behind. So, he reprises the characters and plot by letting things steep in a tea of hesitation for a generation. In “A Doll House, Part 2,” Hnath brings Nora back to knock on the same door she exited so loudly and forcefully 15 years earlier.

That door once again directs our entry into these lives.

Janet Mitcko as Nora Helmer in The Public Theatre’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2.”

Nora’s knock is answered by Anne Marie, the housekeeper and nanny to the Helmers, whose slow arthritic stooped gait testifies to the weight of the years she has lived.

Nora, left, played by Janet Mitchko greets Anne Marie, played by Vicky Boyle, in “A Doll’s House Part 2,” at The Public Theatre.

With undeniable joy, Anne Marie greets Nora with a gush of emotion, but then begins the litany of questions that Hnath and Ibsen’s four characters must explore. Where did she go? Why is she back? How will everyone react?

Costuming clearly portrays that the year is truly 1894. The set, a small table, a few chairs and a footstool are almost lost in the large dingy walled room; reminders of its past hominess are portrayed as “bright” spots on the wall where pictures once hung. But modern dialogue promptly dissipates the mist of the Victorian past; the answers, interactions and relationships quickly become timeless.

Highest plaudits and praise are due the cast. Nora (Janet Mitchko) is bombastic, self-assured and self-congratulatory of her new life as an author. She straightaway proclaims that she has single-handedly revealed to the world that the institution of marriage is useless, outdated and soon to be overthrown by society.

Anne Marie (Viki Boyle) seems the compliant, dutiful family “retainer” at first, but as she learns more of Nora’s adopted “hippy- bohemian-counter culture” lifestyle, her dialogue becomes decidedly and graphically 21st-century. Throughout, Boyle’s portrayal deftly balances the truth of her love for all of her charges with a feisty honesty about the shortcomings and strengths of each.

Anne Marie’s burden in all this may be the most poignant, if that is possible. She has essentially lived the life Nora left. She raised Nora’s children, kept the household and supported Torvald through his darkest and most despondent periods. She is a woman who, in her youth, became pregnant without marriage and had to give up her child, then seek work as a domestic to keep body and soul together. Her stooped role personifies how she has silently and thanklessly borne the burdens for all the Helmer family.

Nora’s reappearance, it seems, is driven by Victorian standards. Married women are not allowed to sign contracts, enter into business relationships or pursue various independent paths. A husband’s consent is required by law. The fame and fortune she has found in her pseudonymous alter ego is threatened because she has recently learned that husband Torvald (Paul Schoeffler) never filed for divorce. Her continued legal status as married must be rectified so she may continue her independent existence without legal ramifications.

Torvald returns home early from work at the bank. This interrupts Nora’s attempt to enlist Anne Marie’s help. A difficult conversation with Torvald must take place to still the roiled waters now confronting Nora.

Instantly the 15 years evaporate. Nora and Torvald descend immediately into recrimination, guilting, condescendion and blame as the past resurfaces like the pain of sandpapered skin. Paul Schoeffler’s Torvald plays off Mitchko’s Nora with a convincing combination of resurgent pain, accusation and condemnation. He evolves, perhaps, into the most sympathetic character of all as he finds his way to his own reconciliation.

Torvald (Schoeffler), left, talking with Nora (Mitchko).

Fast-paced, expansive and brilliantly delivered dialogue reveals much of their past relationship, in loud and passionate fury the details of how and why they have arrived at this juncture take shape. The key revelation amidst the recrimination is the fact that Nora has come to ask Torvald to complete the divorce, finally freeing her to be a complete and independent being. Appalled at what he sees as being manipulated after 15 years of absolute avoidance, he refuses. “I don’t want this to be easy,” he declares vengefully. Nora explains Torvald need only say he wishes a divorce to obtain it. If Nora must pursue the divorce, standards of the day require that she besmirch him, wrongfully accuse him of misdeeds of which he is not guilty and otherwise destroy his good name. “Do it,” he replies. Nora rails at Torvald, accusing him of playing victim to satisfy his need to blame her.

Returning to Anne Marie, Nora laments that she has two options, both of which are anathema to her. Proceed with the divorce on her own, a path that would require deceit and misrepresentation (reasons for leaving her marriage in the first place), or publicly denounce her writings and admit that her alter ego was a fraud, losing all the success and esteem she has gained. Anne Marie proposes an option three: Enlist the aid of Nora’s now grown daughter, Emmy. She is, Anne Marie says, so smart, so persuasive, so like her mother. She might convince her father to pursue the divorce where Nora had failed.

Emmy, played by Ally Carey, interacts with her mother, Nora (Mitchko) in “A Doll’s House, Part 2.”

This meeting is arranged, beginning awkwardly since Emmy was too young to remember her mother when she left. The audience is enveloped in a fervid debate between mother and daughter; each candidly itemizes her view on the pros and cons befalling an abandoned child and the abandoning parent. In time Emmy also explains that Torvald never divorced Nora because in the shame and humiliation that she had left him, he allowed it to become understood that Nora had left for a trip, become ill and ultimately died. As a result he received government support for bereaved families, now leaving him liable to prosecution for fraud.

Option three, as conspired by Anne Marie and Nora, is dead in the water. The next option emerges: Since everyone thinks Nora is dead, why not perpetuate the lie? Though there was no death certificate, Emmy’s fiancé is well enough connected to construct such a specious document. However, Emmy divulges that she, so like her mother, as Anne Marie has intimated, is exactly opposite her mother; she has faith and belief in marriage and other societal norms so hopelessly dismissed by Nora. In this, Emmy now rejects having to involve her mother’s scandal and father’s dishonesty with her fiancé to accomplish what Nora desires. To her, such collusion would be analogous to the misdeeds of Emmy’s parents.

Paul Schoeffler as Torvald, Viki Boyle as Anne Marie and Ally Carey as Emmy in The Public Theatre’s production, “A Doll’s House, Part 2.”

With Emmy’s revelation, truth begins to finally take the upper hand. She cannot be a part of such deceit.
Torvald returns to present a divorce degree he has procured (with some difficulty) as the right thing to do, even though he initially refused. Now Nora refuses to accept it, again incensing Torvald who has just sacrificed his own reputation and good standing, and perhaps even his job by legally acknowledging his fraudulent deed.

A softened discussion between Nora and Torvald ensues as Nora explains that she, too, must take ownership of her part in the complicated deceit that has been in the background these 15 years and renounce her alter ego, perhaps sacrificing her hard won independent success. In conclusion, tensions subside between Nora and Torvald. They speak previously unspoken truths to one another in a subdued, almost loving, tone. At least they are talking, which is what is needed in a world for mutual existence.

Janet Mitchko as Nora, left, and Paul Schoeffler as Torvald in “A Doll’s House, Part 2.”

Just as this semblance of harmony seems present, Nora gathers her things stating, “I’m ready to do this again,” and announces, “I might lose everything I have, but I’ve done that before and I can do it again.”

And through the door, once again, she disappears.

This play is remarkable. It is not a feminist statement, which is what it may appear to be at first blush. It is far beyond that; a thought-provoking play within a play asking hard questions, offering honest insights into relationships and shedding light on truth and consequences.

To thine own self be true, the saying goes. But what unintended sequels may result? In the hands and voices of these extremely skilled actors the play’s sophisticated arguments about who we are, what we owe to ourselves and one another cannot be labeled as mere entertainment. They are illuminating and compelling.