I’d heard so much about The Gamm Theatre in Warwick but had, inexplicably, never attended a performance. As they enter their 35th season, I clearly have some catching up to do and what an interesting way to begin. In A Doll’s House, Part 2 (2017), playwright Lucas Hnath imagines what happens when Nora Helmer, a woman who left her husband and three children 15 years prior in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879), returns home. Yes. I already love the drama of it all! I’ll take protofeminist concepts for 500, Alex, and a root beer at concessions.
We open on stage designer Patrick Lynch’s simple but effective one-set production of a revolving home facade and two straight back chairs. In a 90-minute, no-intermission, dialogue-heavy play, a set should frame and accentuate the happenings without overwhelming them. Lynch accomplishes this in full. The rudimentary surroundings make Helmer’s absence all the more apparent.
The play begins with incessant knocking. When Anne Marie, the loyal housemaid, opens the door she is surprised to greet Nora Helmer, the woman who slammed the same door shut 15 years ago. Nora, who is expertly portrayed by Jeanine Kane (who’s reprising her role from director Fred Sullivan Jr.’s 2011 staging of Ibsen’s masterwork), comes through like a wrecking ball. After barely a few niceties, Nora asks Anne Marie (played by Debra Wise, who is just fabulous) if she’s assumed the worst about her whereabouts over the last 15 years. “I feel like I’m being set up,” responds Anne Marie.
It is true that many believed she was dead, however, lucky for Nora, she is still alive and her life is great! In the most pronounced way, Nora conveys that she’s spent the last 15 years living her best life (a phrase I feel comfortable using as the script uses slang and idiomatic expressions of the 21st century of which I personally enjoy). She’s had freedom! She’s had sex! She’s a best-selling novelist! Yes, she’s currently under the threat of scandal and possible imprisonment by a blackmailing judge due to the convincing nature of her books against marriage and yes, she’s here because she needs help from her husband, housemaid, and daughter; but at the baseline, she’s doing well and Kane’s portrayal is so convincing that despite the posturing, I believe it’s true.
Against Nora is Anne Marie, played by the fabulous Debra Wise. She has taken care of Nora’s children and husband for years and a little appreciation couldn’t hurt! Anne Marie is delightfully passive-aggressive and pragmatic in her responses to Nora as she tries to keep the peace. She feigns understanding while thinly veiling judgment of Nora’s impassioned tirade against marriage. Wise is amazing in this role; formidable in her delivery and humor and plays against Kane’s hyper-thespian Nora so well. I just loved her.
A definite highlight was Kane’s delivery of, for lack of better phrasing, Nora Helmer’s TED Talk on the rules of society and gender. “Marriage is cruel and it ruins people’s lives!” Marriage is an “unnecessary process of self-torture!” The character of Nora Helmer was created by men. Of course, and there’s no way around it, she will inherit traits that are filtered through the lens of the male gaze. She’s dramatic! Always talking! Super stubborn! Maybe evil? However, Kane’s performance is all her own as she delivered Nora’s impassioned admonishment with very little stereotype and a whole lot of conviction.
The strength of A Doll’s House, Part 2 is how overwhelmingly convincing the players are. Later in the play, Nora has a tale-as-old-as-time argument with her husband, Torvald Helmer (played by Steve Kidd, also reprising his 2011 role), about all their miscommunications and misunderstandings. They talk down to each other, they’re patronizing, they shout. This argument was like a tennis match; Kidd’s sincere, piteous, angry portrayal and Kane’s audacious veracity made it easy to empathize with both on the court.
Later on, we meet Nora and Torvald’s daughter, Emmy Helmer, played by Alison Russo, and the tension is so incredible that while I root for Nora (because women don’t need to be selfless to be good!) it was hard not to side with Emmy. Russo’s sassy assertion provides good reason to believe Nora is undeniably in the wrong. You don’t get to just leave, come back 15 years later, and start making demands of people! Staying in theme, Emmy drives the excitement of her future nuptials into her mother’s unrepentant heart and it is a master class in discomforting discourse. “This future where we’re all nomads–is that really what you want?”
Nora Helmer is as complex a character as it comes. She is an undeniable walking contradiction both fabulous and liberated while wholly unwilling to accept the pain she caused upon her abrupt take off. Director Fred Sullivan, Jr. brings her to life inside a quartet of top-shelf talent in the confrontation olympics of A Doll’s House, Part 2. His production is lucid and intelligently constructed while honoring the complexities of gender inequity, feminism, and relationships.