Shock space

Nora and Torvald end up on the bare wooden floor.

A Doll's House, Part 2: “Nora's apparel shouts, 'Here I am!' She is liberated.”
  • A Doll's House, Part 2: “Nora's apparel shouts, 'Here I am!' She is liberated.”

Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 begins where Henrik Ibsen’s masterpiece A Doll’s House ends. After 15 years on her own in the world, Nora Helmer returns to the door she slammed on her way out — and needs a little help from her X.

Ibsen chose the title of the 1879 drama with his customary precision. Nora Helmer lives for her husband’s approval. Torvald only loves an image of what a wife should be: a subservient plaything, a house pet, a manipulated doll. She’s so boxed in she can’t even eat her favorite confection. Macaroons are too extravagant for her, says Torvald, and too expensive. They've never had a single serious discussion in eight years of marriage.

When the family runs into financial trouble, Nora takes out a loan and, since he would never accept a handout, violates his iron-clad control. She repays in secret installments. She’s so afraid he’ll find one in the mailbox, she considers herself already dead, drowned in “icy black water.” When he does find out, he declares her unfit to bring up his three children. She can remain in the household, but not be a part of it.

In turn, Nora sees through smothering Torvald. She wants an equal marriage. Since theirs isn’t, she will shed her toy-wife cocoon, learn about the world outside, and become a woman. She leaves, slamming the door with all her pent-up might.

Nora’s rejection of traditional values shocked Ibsen’s audience. When the play was produced in Germany, his agent made him write an alternate ending: before she’s about to leave, Nora sees her three children and faints dead away. Curtain. Ibsen called the revision a “barbaric outrage.”

So what happened to Nora? Could she make it in a lock-down, male-dominated system? The answer, on the streets and in several sequels, depended on the bias of the perceiver. Most saw her as evil. She abandoned her husband and children. She’s doomed.

Hnath says otherwise. His Nora is a fully liberated woman. She writes successful feminist novels. One is pure autobiography: a suffocating, bourgeois wife breaks free. To evict male voices in her head and find her own, she lives in silence for two years (of course, to encourage sales, such an intimidating heroine had do die, of consumption in this case).

The real Nora still can’t escape the male grasp: a judge creates legal issues. Torvald, it turns out, never divorced her. She’s back for official closure.

At the San Diego Rep, Sean Fanning’s scenic design makes one wonder how long before Broadway steals this gifted artist away. Two grayish-white walls angle back to the famous door. Beyond three tall windows, thanks to Alan Burrett’s precise lighting, lurks a Norwegian winter. The set has the makings for a play by Ibsen. But the stage is mostly bare and, since Torvald dumped all traces of Nora, lacks what some might call “a female touch.” A steep rake all but spills into the audience. You’d swear only ghosts could inhabit such a shadowy interior.

When Nora makes her entrance in a backlit haze, worries arise that Broadway will steal away costume designer Jennifer Brawn Gittings as well. Nora’s silhouette suggests stately Victorian proportions, if you don’t count those peacock feathers stretching from her hat. As she comes downstage to meet Anne Marie (Linda Libby as the serio-comical housemaid), Nora’s outfit transforms from repression to release. It’s an assertive red, with brocade in shades of black and olive/gold. And it’s a three — make that four — piece suit; the dress opens to skintight pants. Nora’s apparel shouts, “Here I am!” She is liberated.

She brings an armada of arguments against marriage: “most people would be more fulfilled without it;” it’s an “idea etched into our skulls;” “the ache” for freedom “is in the core of who we are.” The playwright calls the scenes that follow “boxing matches.” The “matches” about the virtues of marriage are deliberately inflammatory. But instead of cold, rhetorical position papers, they are character-driven, and often funny.

Proud Nora has come to beg. Instead she has tough, toe-to-toe debates with Anne Marie, with daughter Emmy (lively young Danny Brown, as stubborn as her mother), and finally with Torvald (an outstanding Rene Thornton, Jr., who does an emotional 180, and makes Ibsen’s troglodyte sympathetic). Nora and Torvald end up on the bare wooden floor, both stripped down to shirtsleeves, and may be equals at last.

Sofia Jean Gomez’s Nora is a hellion for the play’s 85 minutes. She battles, cajoles, contracts, and detonates. In an unexpected touch, she adopts her opponents' characteristics — in effect combating them with their styles.

Someone asked the director Anne Bogart if she liked political plays with a definite point of view. Oh no, she said, she always looks for “friction.” The truth, she says, “mostly exists in the space between opposites. It exists in the disagreement of ideas or in imagery.” Bogart loves to create “shock spaces” on a stage, where contradictions clash and break up “the cushion of definitions.” Director Sam Woodhouse and the first-rate cast and designers have turned the Rep’s main stage into that shock space.

A Doll’s House, Part 2. By Lucas Hnath.

San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown.

Directed by Sam Woodhouse; cast: Linda Libby, Sofia Jean Gomez, Rene Thornton, Jr., Danny Brown; scenic design, Sean Fanning, costumes, Jennifer Brawn Gittings, lighting, Alan Burrett, sound, Matthew Lescault-Wood.

Playing through December 16; Sunday and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m.,Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m.

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