You can always count on ETC to stay cutting edge in which plays are chosen. A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2 at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati is reportedly the number one produced play in America in 2019. I do not understand why, but then again this play probably isn’t written for someone like me. I’m not sure who the intended audience is, as the themes addressed have been talked about for years in much more palatable and insightful ways.
This play is an unauthorized sequel to the classic “A Doll’s House” by Ibsen, which shocked audiences when it was written by featuring a female character leaving her husband and her children behind by slamming the door on them at the end as she walked out to a new life without them. You don’t need to know any more than that to understand the plot or characters in this new work. We get caught up quickly, with “Nora” (Connan Morrissey) walking back through the same door and being greeted by long-suffering housekeeper “Anne Marie” (the amazing Christine Dye). “Torvald” (Tony Campisi) is the husband and “Emmy” (an effervescent Esther Cunningham) is their daughter. The play is told in five scenes, four focused on each of the characters and the final centered around the former couple. It runs about ninety-five minutes.
I couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like to be Nora and Torvald’s marriage counselor. I did lots of couples therapy when I was in private practice. I imagine would have been looking at the clock, hoping that these two people would hurry up and leave my office and not reschedule. You have the husband, a wimpy, impotent man who after his wife walked out on him shows almost no feeling about her return. You have a completely selfish woman, entitled and angry but without cause, who has zero insight about the way her actions have affected other people. I didn’t like them and would not want to spend time with either of them. Perhaps if I were watching the great Laurie Metcalf, who won a Tony for her portrayal of Nora, I would felt differently as she has a history of taking unlikable, selfish characters (“Jackie” on Roseanne, the doctor on HBO’s “Getting On,” the mothers in “Lady Bird” and even “Scream 2”) and giving them sympathetic layers through her charismatic performances. Otherwise, I have no idea how anyone would leave the theatre thinking that Nora was anything but the villain in this story. I’m not sure that the playwright, Lucas Hnath, realizes just how off-putting she is.
The essential problem is that the construct – that men are allowed to leave their families without consequence while women are not – is faulty. I don’t know anyone who thinks that it’s OK for a father to leave his children behind. I don’t know that it’s socially acceptable behavior (at least not in the minds of anyone who has the resources or interest in seeing a play like this) to walk out on your wife and kids. And there are consequences; the amount of child support that men pay every year (or are at least supposed to pay) is staggering. Men who leave are not celebrated. But Nora – and Hnath – seem to think otherwise. And then there’s the criticism of marriage, as if this is the first time we’ve ever heard monogamy railed against in the theatre. There’s nothing revolutionary about these ideas except that Nora is writing about them in the late 1800s.
Here’s what I did like: Christine Dye always delivers. She is authentic, finding the truth of a character even when it’s not fully fleshed out. She finds the emotion and the truth in every character she plays even if it’s unconventional. Watch her listen and react to Nora; the subtle nuances contrast with her big personality in a magical way. I’m a huge fan. I also thought Esther Cunningham’s performance was inspired. She comes across as quite dumb at first, but when she starts to reveal her wisdom she does so while staying true to who “Emmy” is. Director Regina Pugh, who I always perceive as very cerebral, has done a good job with setting and maintaining a tone throughout the play, and despite the faults in the script, with its wordiness and heavy-handed take on conventional gender roles, keeps things mostly interesting. I also think Brian c. Mehring’s (with help from Shannon Rae Lutz) set and lights, the costumes (Stormie Mac), James Geier’s wigs, Matt Callahan’s sound design, stage management, house staff, and even the bartenders are all top-notch. And D. Lynn Meyers still delivers the best curtain speeches in town.
A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2 is the most produced play in America this year. So I again assume that I must be in the minority in how I felt about the script. Don’t misunderstand, most of my negative feeling are about the script and not this production. I’d love for you to buy a ticket, support live theatre, and come to your own conclusions. These are just my thoughts, my reactions to what I experienced on opening night, bringing in my own biases, perceptions, and baggage, as it were.
I always admire the amount of work, dedication, and effort that goes into pulling off such a professional production.
A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2 is playing at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati through March 30th. Tickets are available here.