Theatre Review: ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’ at Actor’s Express

Photos by Casey Gardner

Actor’s Express is presenting Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2” in a co-production with Aurora Theatre, running on the Express stage through Sept. 30.

You may be saying, Wait—didn’t the great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen write “A Doll’s House” about 100 years ago (actually 1879)? Give yourself a star: He certainly did, and many encounter Ibsen in college courses like world literature or even world drama.

So you may know that many call Ibsen the “father of modern drama” because he introduced realism and naturalism into a Victorian, conservative era that favored “cup and saucer” drama: plays where people just sat around and nothing much of consequence was done or said.

And it may be hard to comprehend how a wife (like Nora, in “A Doll’s House”) who simply left her husband could cause such outrage and controversy and create “the slam heard around the world” when she exits in the final seconds of the play, shutting the door on the half-life she has been living, being in effect her husband’s doll—certainly not an equal partner.

But she did—outrage, excitement, and much criticism. So did Ibsen cower and repent his heresy? Hardly: two years later he wrote a play called “Ghosts,” a play that so horrified many it was called “the dirty deed done in public.” I can’t go into that, although I’ll never forget a powerful production I saw when I was a college freshman.

Back to “Part 2”: Hnath hatched the delicious idea of having Nora (Tess Malis Kincaid) come back to her home after 15 years, and that is how the play begins, with her knocking on that same door she slammed.

At first, when the housekeeper Anne Marie (Deadra Moore), lets her in, Nora appears quite prosperous; she’s become a “woman’s novelist” and revels in being her own boss and living alone. But she has a serious legal problem: Her former husband Torvald (Rob Cleveland) never officially divorced her. In that time, apparently, it was easy for a man to grant his wife a divorce; but a wife must jump through some complicated, expensive hoops to initiate the divorce herself.

That’s just the beginning of Nora’s problems. There is, shall we say, the human element. Nora not only left Torvald 15 years ago; she left her three children. One of them, Emmy (Shelli Delgado), is now a grown young woman with an independent mind much like her mother’s. Emmy isn’t happy that her mother left them.

Neither, for that matter, is housekeeper Anne Marie. She has plenty of judgmental gripes against Nora and is not hesitant in expressing them—in unexpectedly raunchy, R-rated language that Ibsen would not have used. But the effect is startling and funny; and here we see the skill of playwright Hnath in realizing that humor can spice up almost any drama (Shakespeare taught us that). In his 90-minute play are five two-character scenes that Hnath labeled “individual boxing matches.” They are exhilarating, as is the play, and they are certainly not without humor.

It may surprise you to learn that Ibsen said his intention in “A Doll’s House” was not primarily to promote the emancipation of women; it was to establish, as Ibsen’s biographer Michael Meyer said, “that the primary duty of anyone was to find out who he or she really was and to become that person.”

Here, of course, he especially addresses the problems of married women who were treated as their husbands’ property.

But we need actors who can bring this witty, provocative dialogue to life, and in Actor’s Express’ production, expertly directed by Freddie Ashley, we’ve got them. If you know the Atlanta theatre scene at all, you know that Tess Malis Kincaid’s presence inevitably elevates the proceedings. An actor once told me that “whenever I work with Tess, I know I’ve got to bring my A-game, because her intelligence and vitality demand it.” If anyone can illuminate the angst and complexity and wit of Nora, it’s Ms. Kincaid, and she does.

Ms. Delgado (particularly), Mr. Cleveland (poor Torvald; after 15 years he’s still miffed at Nora and hasn’t a real clue why she left him), and the feisty Ms. Moore offer excellent performances. A passing thought: sitting close to the front, I wondered why the dialogue wasn’t occasionally more pianissimo; sometimes the essence of anger comes out very quietly. But these impressions are always subjective.

I admire Mr. Hnath’s tackling this classic play; he and Bernard Shaw have something in common: They’re both huge Ibsen admirers. Shaw saw the significance of Ibsen’s new realism and wrote about it in his book “The Quintessence of Ibsenism.”

By the way, this play enjoyed a critically acclaimed run last year on Broadway; it’s easy to see why. From those first knocks on that door, you’re a happy prisoner in “A Doll’s House, Part 2.”

For tickets and information, visit actors-express.com.

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