An old joke: “Marriage is a wonderful institution. But who wants to live in an institution?” Nora Helmer, the protagonist of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” would likely agree with the latter sentiment.
Taking place in 1879, Ibsen’s groundbreaking work dealt with the fate of a married woman who ultimately leaves her husband and three children to live a life on her own terms. Seen as an attack on the traditional roles of men and women, as well as the institution of marriage, the play scandalized audiences of its time.
Ibsen was inspired to write the show because of the predicament of his friend Laura Kieler, a writer who signed an illegal loan (because married women in Norway and much of Europe couldn’t conduct business on their own at the time) to pay for her husband’s tuberculosis treatment, saving his life. Kieler’s husband repaid her by committing her to a mental institution; two years later, she left the institution and went on to become a well-known author.
Onstage now at Virginia Rep’s November Theatre is “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” a modern play that imagines what would happen if the characters of the original script reunited 15 years after Nora’s famous exit. Penned by playwright Lucas Hnath, this intelligent and perceptive “Doll’s House” finds the characters speaking modern English and able to seamlessly incorporate their backstory so as not to lose an audience new to Ibsen’s story.
Under director Sharon Ott’s hand, the show is alternately funny and dramatic, though, at times, a bit tedious.
Returning to the role she played three years ago in TheatreLab’s staging of Ibsen’s play, Katrinah Carol Lewis stars as Nora. Far from the flitting hummingbird at the beginning of the original show, getting what she wants through flirtation and coquettish posing, Nora has come into her own and returned home. She has just learned that Torvald never filed for divorce after she left. Because she conducted business during the interval as a single woman, she now faces fraud charges and financial ruin. As it is easier in this time period for a man to file for divorce than a woman, Nora has returned home seeking an official dissolution of their marriage.
Just as the original, audiences may be divided over whether Nora’s decision was one of early feminist fortitude, monstrous neglect of her family, or somewhere in between. Hnath’s smart exploration of gender roles and what it means to be a woman works both in the play’s time period and in ours. Touching on class, gender, individualism, intimacy and domesticity, Hnath’s script keeps much in motion without seeming heavy-handed.
As Nora, Lewis gives an assured performance as a woman who has grown accustomed to being her own person. Now a successful and incendiary author who advocates against marriage, Nora must face the wreckage of what happened after she left her family. While Lewis gives hints of her character’s previous self, Nora 2.0 is more worldly and frank about her aims. Playing Lewis’ foil is David Bridgewater, who brings weight and a quiet dignity to a man left behind to raise three children. Behind his stoic façade is a powder keg that will blow by the evening’s conclusion.
There’s also Catherine Shaffner as Anne Marie, the nanny who raised both Nora and Nora’s children in her absence. Eternally an entertaining presence – one feels she could make the phone book spellbinding – Shaffner is both funny and dramatically effective in her role. And as Emmy, the young daughter Nora left behind, Katy Feldhahn plays the part as a character with more confidence than experience, but smart beyond her years. Emmy is open to meeting her mother again – and filled with many of the original Nora’s traits – while still pointing out that Nora’s advice on marriage might not be every woman’s road map to happiness.
In contrast to the furnished Victorian home of the original, here set designer Katherine Field gives us an austere background of texture-painted walls, crown molding and a raked stage adorned with just two chairs and a side table. Sue Griffin and Marcia Miller Hailey’s wine-colored walking dress for Nora is beautiful, while Torvald and Anne Marie’ costumes are appropriately staid.
Well-acted and staged, this “Doll’s House” asks how much has changed for women since Nora bid adieu nearly a century and a half ago.
Virginia Rep’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” plays through Feb. 27 at the November Theatre, 114 W. Broad St. For more information, visit va-rep.org or call (804) 282-2620.