A Woman’s Liberation@ Steppenwolf Theatre

3 out of 4 stars

Lucas Hnath’s 2017 play A Doll’s House, Part 2 hits a nerve for me. I wanted to drag my whole family to the theatre to see it.  It is a complex feminist work that lays out the conundrum of the untenable situation that women exist in even now, though it purports to be about the late nineteenth century. How a woman carves out a space for herself in a male dominated world, and finds her very own story, continues to be the chief dilemma of self actualization in our society here in the 21st century, though even more so in previous centuries where the very laws erased our personhood.

The premise of this work is that we are picking up fifteen years after main character, Nora Helmer, (here played by the impressive Sandra Marquez) in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s Househas walked out the door on her life, her husband ,and her three young children. Here, she walks back in that door.  Anne Marie,(here played by Chicago gem Barbara E. Robertson) the Helmer’s long suffering servant, looks like she is seeing a ghost.   Nora is quite well, fashionably dressed in velvet and beads, and she is powerful: has an independent income and life.  She has returned from obscurity because she has discovered her husband Torvald never filed for divorce after her departure and her actions since then could be considered criminal for a married woman without her husband’s permission.  She needs that piece of paper to be free, because her act of abandoning her home and family did not, in the eyes of society, actually free her.  Torvald ( a vulnerable Yasen Peyankov) arrives home early from work and is in shock to see her. The ninety minutes unwind in a chess game of wants and manipulations, regrets and reparations as Nora and Torvald try to find balance and a personal truth. The truth is elusive because each character lives in a world of their own making and there are few bridges between these worlds.  Anne Marie, caught in the middle, and trapped by her own class and status cage,tries to referee, eventually bringing in the daughter Emmy (the young and beautiful Alex Elam) who has no memory of her mother and is engaged to be married—possibly repeating a cycle that Nora so desperately wants to end.  Encaged by society, its rules and norms,  and by a spare stage set that is designed like a jury box mixed with a coliseum, the characters circle each other on the wide wide playing area (I don’t recommend the on stage seats), headlined by some odd supertitles cast upon the painterly gray backdrop that stretches into the heavens.  For me the sparseness of the set allowed the shadow of Part One, the Ibsen original, to inhabit the space.  You don’t need to have seen the original, but it gives layers and layers to this response to Ibsen’s before-its-time diatribe on the subjugation of women.    Men have been abandoning their spouses and young children for eons and it’s so common that  it’s not good material for drama, but a woman walking out of her maternal place—now that is something to think about, because it crosses so many lines.

Director Robin Witt has opted for a badass Nora here which sometimes circumvents our sympathy for her.  As each character tries to stake a claim to their own operating system, and get the others to at least look through their lenses, they each speak a foreign language unrecognizable to the other characters.  Torvald is harnessed to a male dominated status quo where honor and what society thinks are high value currency—he needs to be broken to consider any alternative.  Anne Marie has planted herself in survival: life didn’t hand her much but she can’t afford the luxury of resenting her employers for making her do all the hard parts of creating home.  And Emmy has drunk the koolaid of romantic love; society has sugar coated the meaning of love and marriage and she is ready to be owned. .
There is a certain unevenness to this production as though the actors are acting in different plays with different styles, but this may read better as time goes on—though the narrative demands they each live in a different world, the form of live performance dictates that they exist together on one stage. What A Doll’s House Part 2 has to say about gender wars will have you thinking about your own life and the box you operate out of for days to come.  It asks the question: what is selfishness and what is self preservation, and there are no clear answers.

A Doll’s House, Part 2 is playing through March 17th in Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre at 1650 N. Halsted and there is no better way to get through this Polar Vortex No Sun For Days winter than settling in for an Ibsen companion piece. For more information and to buy tickets go to www.steppenwolf.org  or call 312-335-1650. Or go to https://www.theatreinchicago.com/a-dolls-house-part-2/9919/