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Arden Theatre Company presents Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2’ (first review)

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Rishard and Gonglewski do the opposite of a meet-cute in Hnath's sequel. (Photo by Mark Garvin.)
Rishard and Gonglewski do the opposite of a meet-cute in Hnath's sequel. (Photo by Mark Garvin.)

Upon entering the Arden Theatre Company's Arcadia Theatre for Lucas Hnath's acclaimed A Doll's House, Part 2, regulars and subscribers might experience déjà vu. Jorge Cousineau's elegant scenic design for Hnath's 2017 sequel resembles his set for the Arden's 2018 production of Henrik Ibsen's 1879 classic, which from this time forward we’ll call Part 1.

The visual difference, when Nora (Grace Gonglewski) returns 15 years after leaving husband Torvald (Steven Rishard), is that the drawing room we see is not sparse but barren. Only two chairs and a small table, all white like the house's frame, remain. The one wall in this audience-on-three-sides configuration is dark and bland, with stains where pictures once hung.

Before the play begins, we read fortune-cookie-like quotes crawling along the set's hanging white molding like news bulletins: "Something wonderful is going to happen," says one. "With me, you could have been another person." "There's no such thing as action without consequences in this life." Heady contemplation!

Rest in peace, Henrik

You don't have to have read or seen A Doll's House to appreciate Hnath's Part 2, but it's a play theatergoers should know. Director Tracy Brigden exceeds the contemporary energy of director Terrence J. Nolen's A Doll's House with a dynamic, expressive physical staging.

Hnath's lean, fast, contemporary dialogue matches Brigden's bold style. When nanny Anne Marie (Joilet Harris, the cast's sole holdover) says, "I'm still pissed at you" and "Fuck you, Nora!" we laugh at the shocking incongruity, but the emotions are real, unfettered by period stuffiness.

Ibsen's not spinning in his grave, however. A Doll's House's debate about the legal and social inequities of marriage not only continues but expands. The way Hnath’s irreverent characters argue intelligently and passionately, validating their conflicting views, often echoes Bernard Shaw. Shaw was an early champion of Ibsen's revolutionary focus on real issues and author of the seminal critique The Quintessence of Ibsenism.

Gonglewski plays Nora brilliantly, with the same impish spark Katherine Powell brought to the role in Part 1, plus the wisdom earned through 15 years of living alone in a society skeptical of single women. She questions the viability of a lifelong commitment to one person and the legal double standard that gives all financial rights and responsibilities to husbands, leaving women indentured servants. "In the future," she remarks confidently, "20 to 30 years from now, marriage will be a thing of the past."

Joilet Harris returns to Nora's world and the Arden's stage for this production. (Photo by Mark Garvin.)
Joilet Harris returns to Nora's world and the Arden's stage for this production. (Photo by Mark Garvin.)

Harris's outspoken Anne Marie and Grace Tarves's precocious Emmy — Nora and Torvald's youngest child — likewise speak eloquently in defense of their views. The main attraction, though, is Nora's inevitable reunion with Torvald.

No hugs or kisses

Torvald, played with profound emotional openness by Rishard, stews with conflicting feelings when he encounters Nora. They're still married, which is what brings Nora back.

A judge who is offended by Nora's feminist writings, has discovered she's still married, which he will expose (reverting her ability to do business to Torvald, and making her independence a crime) if she does not publicly renounce her views. To secure a divorce, however, she must sue Torvald and thereby ruin him — or Torvald, because men need prove no reason for divorce, could emancipate her with a simple form.

He's still stewing about her famous exit and concerned about how he'll be remembered, since Nora chronicled their failed marriage in a novel. Anne Marie wants to help, but feels loyal to Torvald. Emmy has another idea for Nora but also has her own surprising agenda. Nora's high-stakes situation makes the 90-minute drama taut and suspenseful.

"There are so many bad rules in the world," Nora observes. Hnath wisely realizes legalities won't heal these injured characters; they must work toward some new understanding.

A Doll's House, Part 2 makes great theater, accomplishing much more than a typical sequel. Rather than just repeating the first play's issues, Hnath's script continues to probe them for a world that has not progressed as far toward women's equality as Nora hopes.

To read Cameron Kelsall's review, click here.

What, When, Where

A Doll's House, Part 2. By Lucas Hnath, Tracy Brigden directed. Through December 9, 2018, at the Arden Theatre Company's Arcadia Stage, 20 N. Second Street, Philadelphia. (215) 922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.

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