Love is a Battlefield in “A Doll’s House, Part 2”

By Caleigh Boniger

Within the first few minutes of the Pittsburgh Public’s production of Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 –directed by Ted Pappas, former Public artistic director in a return engagement–it is very clear that when Nora Helmer slammed the door on her husband and children, she took Ibsen out the door with her.  The bare set that is the interior of the Helmer house is a stark contrast to Ibsen’s vision of a claustrophobic home; the language is fast-paced and modern; and Nora, well, Nora has come into the person she feels she really is.

Lisa Velten Smith as Nora

James Noone’s set is mostly open space, but the little scenery he provides along with Gabriel Berry’s clean costuming set us firmly in late nineteenth century Norway.  The sparseness of the house seems to serve as boxing ring for the four characters, but mainly for Nora (Lisa Velten Smith) and Torvald (Daniel Krell).  Smith uses the floor as an auditorium for Nora’s newfound beliefs about the world, sometimes pacing around as she thinks.  As other characters become involved, they begin to square off, often marking territory with chairs as they stake out their positions about the nature of marriage and the laws around it.

While Nora starts out boldly orating about the joys of single life for women, Torvald drags her into the same tired old arguments about married life that we have seen, heard, and experienced a thousand times before.  Nora’s new look as a free, and free-thinking, woman is undercut by these petty, if spirited, quarrels.  Her now-grown daughter, Emmy (Marielle Young), makes a defense of marriage in what could have been a heartfelt plea against loneliness, but comes across more as a pointed attack against her mother for having left.  Young’s bubbly performance charms, but Hnath’s script does not leave much room for charm, and Emmy ends up more calculating than sweet.

Torvald (Daniel Krell) and Nora (Lisa Velten Smith) square off

But all this fighting, all this defense of each person’s politics doesn’t lend much humanity to the characters.  Anne Marie, played with humor and warmth by Pittsburgh veteran Helena Ruoti, seems to be the one person in the house who does not fully commit to a stance, and because of her less combative nature she is the one to retain the most humanity.  In fact, we are only privy to glimpses of real people in the few moments when the fighting subsides.  One of the strongest of these moments is when Nora and Anne Marie talk about their children and about the sacrifices the older maid has made in order to create a stable life for herself.  Anne Marie’s mention of her difference in situation provides an interesting glimpse into the politics of class, but Hnath does not follow this train of thought and nothing significant comes of it.

Nora and Ann Marie (Helena Ruoti)

Another human moment occurs between Torvald and Nora after they have finished screaming at each other over the way Nora, now a novelist, has portrayed her husband in one of her books.  They collapse on the floor together and finally talk about what has become of their lives, and the people they have been with.  Krell displays a wonderful vulnerability when he tells her about his loneliness after their separation.

While it is understandable that Hnath feels a need to differentiate himself from Ibsen stylistically, the language employed to do so, most notably the swearing, becomes gratuitous after the first few times.  It is calculated to get laughs–and it does–but it doesn’t seem to serve the script any further than that.  And he certainly has a vision for Nora, but other than the beliefs she espouses in her lectures about the ills of marriage, there is not much sense of who she really is, something she talks about a number of times.  The Public’s production is a night of laughs and entertainment, but Hnath’s script does not leave us with much in the way of essentially human questions as its predecessor does.  In spite of a strong performance by the Public, Hnath’s play, unlike Ibsen’s, ends not with a bang, but a whimper.

A Doll’s House, Part 2 runs through April 7th. Ticket information can be found here.

Photography credit: Michael Henninger

Cayleigh Boniger has a Bachelor’s in English from Clarion University, but she has a deep appreciation for arts across the spectrum.  While getting her degree, she participated as a critic at the Region 2 Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in Cleveland, and went on to participate at the national festival in D.C.  When not at her day job, she is reading, writing, and obsessing over Shakespeare (but Macbeth in particular).  She may also be rewatching The Good Place or Schitt’s Creek.

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