It’s a good thing Ibsen has been dead for 111 years (I looked it up) because fanfic can infringe on an author’s copyright. But instead of getting sued, Hnath is getting rightfully lauded for his creative, engaging new play. Even if Ibsen were alive, I think he would have liked it. It takes place 15 years after the original work ends, when Nora famously decides she can no longer stand conforming to the strict rules for her gender and being treated like a doll so she leaves her husband and three children with a slam of the door. I saw Part 2 last week with my brother, who did not know the original work, while I’ve seen the original performed a bunch of times. And as soon as brother got over the excitement of seeing Frances McDormand and Joel Coen sitting across the way from us (just kidding he didn’t), he was fine, because honestly what I explained about the original plot in the previous sentence is all you need to know going in. I mean I don’t actually remember much else anyway so as long as you know ‘old timey gender roles, fed up wife, left her husband and children at the end,’ you’re good.
After that powerful ending of the original, what would bring Nora back to her family? How long would it take before she returned? As Part 2 opens, we repeatedly get the answer to the latter question – “Fifteen years!” the maid Anne Marie (Jayne Houdyshell, HILARIOUS all caps necessary) repeatedly shouts! “Fifteen years,” Nora (Laurie Metcalf) repeatedly repeats. The answer to the former question takes a little more prodding, as first Nora wants Anne Marie to gush over how good she looks, in her super expensive-looking gown and her all not-being-dead state, which is a surprise as the family, and the town, it turns out, believed she died because what woman could take care of herself?! Metcalf, who gave one of the best theatrical performances I ever saw in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” several years back, is completely different here, loud and confident but with a certain unnaturalness in her tone and behavior that makes you a little uncomfortable, suggesting that Nora is not as comfortable and contented as she wants everyone to think. The subtle uneasiness could easily be ignored by audience members who want to believe that everything worked out for Nora, and could easily be seized upon for those who want her to have suffered. But Nora is very pleased with how her life turned out, because she became an author of famous books for women – under a pen name of course, lest she be ruined – criticizing the sexism of society and condemning the preposterousness (preposterity? preposterity! change approved!) of marriage. Her books have made a huge splash, garnering rabid fans and intense opposition, as enemies of her/fans of traditional society want to unmask the unknown author and destroy her to set an example.
Trying to prevent such destruction is what brings Nora back to this house. She needs a divorce from Torvald – they never got divorced in the 15 years! FIFTEEN YEARS! Anne Marie, who raised Nora and then raised Nora’s kids instead of her own, is incensed that after all this time (FIFTEEN YEARS!) Nora is only returning for selfish reasons, Nora who never actually said goodbye to the loyal Anne Marie. Houdyshell, always good, manages to make the audience absolutely fall over themselves laughing in the first part of the show, which is just Anne Marie and Nora laying out the facts. It’s a good way to easy into the serious dialogue to come, the debate over right and wrong and decency and strength that becomes more muddled the more you say.
So some man in an office somewhere found out a) that Nora is the author of these books and b) that Torvald never divorced her, and he is threatening to expose her and send her to jail. There are several important period-sensitive issues happening here: A woman could only divorce her husband if she proved, basically, that he was a POS, a cheat or some such. But a man could divorce his wife for any reason. So clearly it would be easier for all if Torvald went along and signed the paper and that was that. If he refused and Nora chose to do it herself, she would need to ruin Torvald’s reputation. And to ruin a man again who didn’t really do anything wrong, at least according to society and everything he knew, would be very unfair. As for why the reveal of Nora as the books’ author would be criminal – she had been acting as an unmarried woman, conducting business and signing contracts as only an unmarried woman could back then. If it turned out that she had signed contracts and entered into deals without the consent of her husband and without him taking the lead on the business dealings, it would be a crime. I knowww so wrong.
The plot doesn’t really matter – the play is about Nora reconciling her decision to save herself with how it affected the people in her life. But the legal issues she faces provide an effective template for how these discussions progress. Either way it goes, there are no winners, and the decisions made – which we don’t see; don’t think that this wraps up their story all tidily and dumb – will continue to break this family. And they will continue to question whether Nora was justified in leaving and living her own life. No matter which side you’re on, there’s no right answer to what she should have done because, as we witness through the three conversations, it’s too complicated when humans are involved.
Once you laugh enough with Anne Marie, the door opens again, and it’s Torvald, played by a somber, unsmiling Chris Cooper, whose entrance immediately changes the mood from a comedy to a drama. His solemnity contrasts with Nora’s crass, almost boorish new manner that gives her the freedom to now sit with her legs falling open, to lie about on the floor in her skirts just because she can. Nora explains her situation to Torvald as if it’s the simplest matter in the world with a clear and straightforward solution. But Chris reminds you of the gravity of the situation, even just physically with how heavy his carriage seems. First of all, Torvald’s like, you just straight up left me and our children, never sent a letter or anything, we thought you died and OH YEAH, we told everyone you did, and you ruined me, and now you want more from me? Then he gets to the heart of the matter, which is that regardless of whether he complies with her or not, they still lose and continue to destroy each other. If he refuses to divorce Nora, she will either destroy him publicly to get the divorce or she will go to jail and be ruined herself. If he refuses and she does choose to try for the divorce, then everyone in town will find out that Nora is actually not dead and that Torvald lied about her dying, and so he’d probably lose his job and be ruined. On the other hand, it’s kind of the same hand because if he does divorce her, there would be a public document proving that Nora is still alive, so everyone would again find out that Torvald lied about his wife dying and he would be shunned and probably lose his job and be ruined. No matter how badly we want to commend Nora for trying to live her best life, her actions harmed Torvald and continue to harm him after all this time. Whether he was a bad husband or not, the punishment still seems to outweigh the crime, and Chris’s performance makes you believe that the self-empowerment behind Nora’s choice does not excuse its ramifications.
The uneasiness this dilemma creates in the audience does not go away, because we don’t find out what Torvald decides to do. It would be hard to believe, however, that he decides to give Nora what she wants. If he’s ruined either way, there’s no way he would make it easier for the woman who devastated him. But it just seems so unfair all around. It’ll make you wonder whether Nora should have just stayed, but then you know she would have suffered her whole life in a claustrophobic role. And you feel bad for Torvald, especially since he wasn’t really a bad man.
The complicated nature of it all continues as Chris leaves and Condola Rashad, brilliant, enters. (BTW, the show is structured generally in three bits – Nora’s conversations with Anne Marie, Torvald, and then Emmy, her daughter. Chris Cooper generally gets the same amount of time as the others, yet he is considered and nominated as Leading Actor in a Play. Erm.) Rashad plays Emmy, one of Nora’s three children that she left behind, now all grown up. It is hard to get over how awesome it is that Rashad, a black woman, is playing the daughter of two white people. There’s no contextual reason, no scandal, just that Rashad is a fantastic actress who deserved to be cast and, even though the character of Emmy would be white in the play’s society, it frankly doesn’t matter who is playing her onstage. Like Thomas Jefferson around the corner. It’s a play, and the audience can deal with it, so more productions should stop using the excuse of historical accuracy or whatever for being so damn white. We’re suspending belief anyway that Laurie doesn’t have a sister named Roseanne; we’re fine doing more. Emmy is a smart young woman with no apparent emotional connection to her mother. She did abandon her as a very young child, after all, and Emmy barely remembers her. Since Nora was okay with leaving her and her two sons in the first place, she doesn’t seem to mind that Emmy treats her coolly. But she does mind that Emmy is the exact opposite of the type of woman Nora is trying to empower. Growing up with no semblance of traditional domestic stability, Emmy yearns to marry and fulfill her social duty as an obedient wife, with the house and the kids and the banker husband (actually, her betrothed even works at Torvald’s bank). Naturally, this horrifies Nora, who spends most of the play railing against marriage (sometimes to the applause of the audience, sometimes to nervous laughter, sometimes to shocked silence when she goes too far). But the poised and intelligent Emmy seems almost more empowered and self-assured than Nora, who feels the need to throw her empowerment in everyone’s face. Emmy knows she has the right to a choice, and that her legitimate preference for the traditional option is still a valid choice. Despite her desire to stay in the place that restrictive society wants her to stay in, Emmy exhibits more clarity and self-awareness than her mother, especially when she tells her “Don’t make my wants about your wants.”
Nora thought she’d have an easy time convincing Emmy to convince Torvald to give into her demands, but Emmy swiftly turns the tables and asks Nora to let Torvald be, having done enough to him already. And Emmy doesn’t want the inevitable ruin to affect her happiness, as the scandal surrounding a faked death would probably stop her wedding. Nora, who stormed in at the beginning with conviction about what she needed to accomplish in this visit, is left confused about what to do. She doesn’t want to ruin her daughter’s chance at happiness, despite her opposition to its form. And she likely realizes how Torvald has suffered enough because of her. It’s completely unclear whether she would do what it takes to let her family live happily – for her to let the bad man expose her true identity and probably ruin her – but you get the sense that she at least can’t now do what it takes to actively ruin them. I almost just wrote that it’s literally between a rock and a hard place. It is not but it is very much figuratively that.
Not much really happens in the play’s swift 90 minutes, but these discussions are fascinating. And even though it’s not a perfect show by far, I just love the concept, to take a classic work and think about what happened next. It leaves you haunted by the questions of what’s right and wrong and whether choosing oneself is borne of selfishness or self-love. The situation is entirely unwinnable and really unpleasant to contemplate. Luckily, it’s just fan fiction, so you can continue believing that everyone lived happy lives after Nora first slammed the door. But it’s not as interesting that way.
No intermission means no super long bathroom lines, which is wonderful. It’s quite easy to get rush tickets to this show, but that might change after the Tony Awards since this is up for eight of them. And all four actors are nominated, which is amazing.
Everyone came out of stage door (there are only four actors after all) and signed. Jayne and Condola moved off very quickly, probably thinking that everyone was waiting just for the bigger stars. But Condola came back when someone asked her to (not me I swear) and was super excited and friendly.
Walking towards the subway I saw Art from Orphan Black and screamed. The end.