I wasn’t sure what to expect from “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” Lucas Hnath’s inventive sequel to the Henrik Ibsen classic. What surprised me is how funny it is.
Director Darren Sextro, who staged his own adaptation of the Ibsen original in August for Kansas City Actors Theatre, now returns to direct Hnath’s compressed follow-up for the Unicorn. It’s less a tragedy than a brainy farce with a decidedly contemporary tone. Under Sextro’s sharp direction, a superior cast of four gets the most out of the material.
Set 15 years after Nora Helmer walked out on her husband children to pursue a life of freedom in 1879 (a conclusion that shocked 19th-century audiences), Nora returns to take care of some unfinished business. She discovers that the legal entanglements and middle-class conventions she escaped have changed only in the details, not in their oppressive demands.
Nora has engineered her return by writing a letter to Anne Marie, the aging Nanny who raised her kids. At first, they enjoy a warm reunion. But soon Nora’s agenda is made clear: Although she has lived as a divorced woman and found success writing feminist books under a pseudonym, it turns out her husband, Torvald, never actually filed for divorce. That poses a range of possible repercussions, including the revelation that’d Nora is not dead, which Torvald allowed friends and associates to believe. It also potentially implicates him in fraud for accepting state assistance to help him raise his children. And, of course, it means that the money Nora has earned as a writer isn’t really hers under the law.
These facts and their ramifications are dealt with in a brisk 90 minutes or so as Hnath walks a tightrope between serious considerations of the fundamental issues raised by Ibsen and his own irreverent response to the original. He allows the characters to speak in contemporary vernacular, including a few F-bombs, and he brings to mind the tension in a marriage counselor’s office as Torvald and Nora thrash out the issues of male entitlement and whether a man can rehabilitate himself enough to be a decent companion to a liberated woman.
So now allow me to state the obvious: Both “A Doll’s House” and this sequel were written by men. Might it not be pertinent to find an adaptation written by a woman? Indeed, it would.
But speaking as a male critic, it seems to me that we must allow Torvald at least minimal sympathy. The Torvald of Ibsen’s play is, in a way, a sort of clueless innocent. As an entitled male, he literally cannot understand what Nora is telling him, why she yearns for freedom beyond the marital yoke. In Part 2, we encounter a Torvald who now dimly perceives his responsibility in Nora’s decision to leave and seems willing to make any adjustments to reconcile. Yet, at the end, Nora slams the door once more as she exits, leaving Torvald gobsmacked yet again.
His problem this time around is that Nora has enjoyed her freedom as an independent woman too much to ever agree to anything resembling a conventional marriage. She left that behind long ago.
The imposing Manon Halliburton plays Nora in this production, bringing out the character’s frustration and pragmatism as she finds herself in danger of losing all that she has gained and ultimately accepting responsibility for her own actions. Halliburton brings dry humor to the role.
Logan Black crafts an interesting comic performance as Torvald, although the actor might seem a little too young for the role. He gives us as a portrait of a man who, in trying to do the right thing, makes matters worse.
The fabulous Kathleen Warfel gives us a comic performance for the books as Anne Marie, whose loyalties are as variable as her moods. Warfel, as always, seems to be performing almost entirely on instinctual level. You can’t really see her thinking. But the ever-changing expressions gliding across her face and the subtle double-takes add up to something unique and memorable.
Anne Marie at one point in the play arranges a meeting between Nora and her daughter Emmy, played impressively by Marisa B. Tejeda. As performed by Tejeda, Emmy’s initially endearing demeanor gradually gives away to calculating assessments of the past, present and future. This is a performance of subtle and smooth transitions.
The playwright finds room in his tightly written one-act for for discussions of what love is and isn’t, the ability or inability of people to fundamentally change and issues of personal responsibility within a family. And, just as the doctor ordered, it gives you plenty to think about after the curtain call.
“A Doll’s House, Part 2” runs through Nov. 10 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. Call 816-531-7529 or go to www.unicorntheatre.org.