‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’ — More Thought-Provoking Than Snicker-Stimulating — at International City Theatre

By Ernest Kearney — Playwright Lucas Hnath’s plays are an oddity. Generally, the core of any drama is the conflict generated by specific actions of the dramatis personae, with which the author has chosen to crowd his stage.

Hnath takes a different path, at least in the trio of his plays to which I have been exposed.

Hnath seems disinterested in constructing occurrences of large dramatic actions on his stage. What appears to engage him are those repercussions that any, such, action initiates and, more significantly, the clash of perspectives from those affected or involved in that event.

In A Doll’s House, Part 2 at Long Beach’s International City Theatre, the pivotal event occurred either fifteen years earlier when Nora Helmer walked out on her husband and family to escape the stifling retardation of married life, or 143 years ago when Norwegian Playwright Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House (or “Part, 1”) premiered at Copenhagen’s Royal Theatre in 1879.

One doesn’t have to break out Ibsen’s play to prepare for Hnath’s clever sequel. The “Part 2” does resonate with various motifs from the original, and numerous inlaid “Easter eggs*” by the playwright, such as Nora on her return being greeted with, “Nora, Nora, Nora;” a nod to Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in which the titular character is famously met with a trinary salutation as well.
Hnath’s play has Nora (Jennifer Shelton) forced to return to the home of her erstwhile husband in a somewhat ironic reversal of fate that lead to her leaving in the first place.

In Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Nora found herself blackmailed by an employee of her husband who threatened to reveal a forgery she had committed for his welfare.

In Hnath’s play, Nora is a now a bestselling author. A thinly disguised account of her marriage, written under a nom de plume, has gained her great success for her depiction of a woman’s plight in society, and a good deal of notoriety for her calls to end the institution of marriage which she regards as nothing but a social tool for the patriarchal domination of women.

An institution that she is positive will be completely discarded in the future, “twenty or thirty years from now.”

However, she has run afoul of a certain judge. The judge, abandoned by his wife after she read Nora’s book, sets to investigating this sexual radical responsible for ruining his domestic “joys.” In the course of his investigation, the judge uncovers Nora’s true identity, but what’s more he discovers something she was unaware of, that after she deserted Torvald he never filed to divorce her.

The judge is now demanding that she publicly renounce her opposition to marriage or he will reveal that she is a fraud, decrying the manacles of matrimony all the while she was “Mrs. Helmer.”

Once again in Hnath’s play, Nora is being blackmailed, only this time the forgery is herself.

In addition to Nora, Hnath enlists other characters from the original; Anne Marie (Eileen T’Kaye) the nanny who raised Nora as a child and remained after her departure to raise the children she left behind, and of course poor, long-suffering Torvald (Scott Roberts,) who has never really recovered from her desertion.

Hnath does toss into the mix a reconceived character of his own, Emmy (Nicolette Ellis,) Nora’s youngest child, now grown, and to Nora’s consternation joyfully anticipating marriage to a junior partner in Torvald’s bank, embracing the very existence her mother found so suffocating.

Nor does Emmy share in her mother’s repudiation of marriage and thinks those women convinced by her book to leave their husbands were foolish, “You saved everyone from a drowning boat but gave them no way to get to shore.”

Like nearly all the productions at the ICT, A Doll’s House, Part 2 is wonderfully staged (thanks in part to Yuri Okahana-Benson’s set, Donny Jackson’s lighting, Jeff Polunas’s sound design and the costuming skills of Kimberly DeShazo,) and superbly casted (thanks to those named above.)

This is Director Trevor Biship-Gillespie’s first involvement with ICT, and one hopes it won’t be the last, as he’s navigated the capers and gyrations of Hnath’s dueling perspectives and personalities with spirit, clarity and grand style.

From the title one might attend this production expecting an evening more on the farcical side, and in this they would be disappointed. Hnath’s play only runs a tight ninety minutes, but those ninety minutes are brimming with cleverness, and in them he does something slightly more important that invoking laughter, he provokes his audiences to think, and leaves them to make up their own mind.

Something Americans at least need to start practicing again.

(In Featured Image: Jennifer Shelton / Photo by Kayte Deioma)

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• It’s a video game term. Google it.

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An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. Kearney remains focused on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. His stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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