At the end of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play “A Doll’s House,” Nora walks out of her home, leaving behind her husband Torvald and three young children. At the beginning of Lucas Hnath’s 2017 “A Doll’s House, Part 2”—continuing at International City Theatre (ICT) through May 1—Nora returns to the home after 15 years. Why is Nora there, and what has happened to her over the past 15 years? Most importantly, what is Nora like now?
The answer to this last question is the main focus of Hnath’s play, which offers riveting insight into the psyche of a woman still in the process of discovering herself. Though the production is billed as “biting comedy,” it’s more like an incisive examination of two people in the aftermath of a blowup, which can be amusing at times but is more often devastatingly honest about the fact that people change.
Though set in 1894 Norway, the play uses contemporary language and has a modern feel. ICT’s production—directed by Trevor Biship-Gillespie—keeps the trappings of 1894 in terms of costuming (Kimberly DeShazo) but its minimal set with an open structure, two chairs and a table (designed by Yuri Okahana-Benson) gives the production an outside-of-time quality.
Into this milieu, Nora arrives (richly portrayed by Jennifer Shelton)—confident though not arrogant, aware she is returning to a home she simply abandoned more than a decade before, ostensibly to get Torvald to finally sign the divorce papers. Housekeeper Anne Marie (a delightfully expressive Eileen T’Kaye) greets her, recognizes her, is flustered by her—and fills her in on what Torvald has been up to all these years, which is actually not that much.
The three kids have grown and left, but Nora hardly seems to miss them anyway. That’s one of the striking things about Nora—she closed the door and apparently never looked back. She does have a strained conversation with daughter Emmy (Nicolette Ellis), now a young woman in her own right, but they share little warmth or common ground, Emmy defiantly making the case for a more traditional feminine path than the one her mother forged by leaving Emmy and her siblings behind.
We eventually get the details of how Nora survived in a world not suited to women earning their own livings, and it’s not a spoiler to note she became wealthy writing novels. You can probably guess her bestseller’s subject matter, which becomes a bone of contention with Torvald (Scott Roberts, who succeeds in making the scorned husband sympathetic) when he comes home early.
Torvald and Nora engage in realistic dialogue that ranges from incendiary to nearly tender, but it’s the emerging portrait of Nora that ultimately fascinates. As she defends her actions and beliefs, we get the sense she is still processing what she did and who she is. In a way, she is still a work in progress. And because of that, she is a fitting model for all of us—allowing herself to fully explore her being, to sound out for herself who she is now.
ICT’s production of Hnath’s highly honed play thus showcases this philosophical essence while allowing us to feel the charged emotions of its characters through excellent acting—Shelton’s nuanced delivery as Nora in particular against Roberts’s steadiness as Torvald. The play’s dynamism is in the dialogue. With the power punch of truthful words, Nora spars with Torvald in what playwright Hnath referred to as a “boxing round” in a 2017 Vogue interview—each bravely baring their characters’ souls so we might more clearly see our own.
International City Theatre’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2” continues through May 1 at the Beverly O’Neill Theater, 330 E. Seaside Way, Long Beach, with shows Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm. There will be a post-show talkback with the cast on Sunday, April 24. Tickets are $49 to $52 and can be purchased at ICTLongBeach.org. Run time is 90 minutes with no intermission.