By Kim Solga, March 28, 2019
What does the patriarchy look like?
It’s not a trick question. Chances are, though, that even the most committed feminist would struggle to bring to mind a crystal-clear image of what remains, even in 2019, an abstract concept for most of us. Sure, we might envision Harvey Weinstein, or Donald Trump – extreme cases of self-entitled abusers. Or perhaps we’d dismiss the query, along with the concept, as broadly outmoded: Weinstein and Trump hardly speak for all men, right?
Maybe. Or perhaps we’re not so good at looking carefully at our own, mundane, patriarchal present. That’s the evidence I take from Krista Jackson’s fierce and engaging production of Lucas Hnath’s Obie and Tony-award nominated “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” a must-see at the CAA theatre until April 14.
I was fully prepared to hate this production. Hnath has set his sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s iconic “A Doll’s House” 15 years after Nora has left her husband, Torvald, and three children to pursue the goals she sets out in the final act of that play: to figure out who she is and what she independently believes; to actualize herself as first and foremost “a human being.” That lands us in roughly 1895, at about the same time that Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” opened in London, and just as actor Elizabeth Robins and her fellow suffragette playwrights were beginning the hard work of becoming artists in their own right. Who might Nora have become at this charged moment in history?
For a feminist theatre scholar like me, this question has long been tantalizing to guess at, but impossible to pin down with any one answer. For a male playwright from contemporary American then to attempt to write the missing story? Well… you can perhaps feel the contours of my anxiety.
I need not have worried quite so much, however. While this production begins with some rockiness, it quickly stretches out into fresh, surprisingly topical territory.
To begin, there’s a knock on the door – predictable enough – and it takes a good while for the nanny and maid Ann Marie (a bit player in Ibsen) to answer. When she does, in strides Nora, all posh silk business dress and high-quality traveling bag, putting aside all speculation that she’s become destitute, been imprisoned, or – worst of all? – just wasn’t actually clever enough to make it on her own.
Deborah Hay’s Nora is palpably proud of her achievement as a successful (even notorious!) feminist author, but she retains the edges of high-spirited, mildly annoying flightiness associated with Ibsen’s heroine.
As she forces Ann Marie to guess at her profession, and then launches into a monologue about the outmodedness of marriage that got more than a few audience members tittering, Hay’s Nora treads a fine line between broad comic mugging and carefully calibrated argumentation. I found the former grating at the start, but Hay begins to tip the balance toward the latter as the evening progresses – a deft and disarming move.
Why is Nora here? It turns out she and Torvald were never formally divorced; he never filed the proper papers. Since Nora is not legally permitted to divorce him unless she is prepared to charge Torvald with criminal actions towards her, and since she has been acting (in business, and in her love life) under the assumption of singlehood since leaving the family home, she has returned now to ask Torvald to make things right.
When Torvald arrives home unexpectedly early, things begin to take off. Each act (there are five, all titled by characters’ names) features Nora in high-stakes discussions with one other character, and, as she and Torvald relive the feelings that drove Nora from her home fifteen years before, we see that thing I alluded to earlier begin to emerge: an increasingly clear, increasingly disturbing image of patriarchy-at-work.
Torvald is a smug, self-entitled man of business in Ibsen’s original; here he’s a good guy, hard done by thanks to the machinations of a selfish and manipulative young wife – or so Paul Essiembre tries to get us to believe. Nora isn’t having it, though; she gives hard back, answering Torvald’s “poor bereft husband” claims with both the reasoned counter-claims they require and the passionate self-defence they deserve. When Torvald finally leaves, believing himself to hold the upper hand as he insists Nora must make the divorce happen on her own, it’s hard not to recognize an absurdly privileged man utterly devoid of recognition for his ex-wife’s hard-fought freedom in his self-satisfied backward glance.
The most rewarding discussions in this play emerge between women, however. Ann Marie – who is “still really pissed” at her former employer and sometime surrogate daughter – pushes back at Nora’s own privileged freedom to walk out the door without looking back. Kate Hennig plays Ann Marie with such staunch plainness that the fierceness of her refusal to accept Nora’s money or pity, too little and too late, hits with particular brutality. Class intervenes as they fight about the sacrifice each has had to make as a mother leaving her children.
While at times “Part 2” falls into the trap of giving the woman’s experience instant social acceptability by invoking the lost-baby card, during Ann Marie’s act the discussion remains carefully calibrated by economics. Nora has had to leave the children to make her own way, and to help other women make better ways for each other as a community; Ann Marie has had to leave her child to raise Nora’s children, because for a woman of her meagre stature and means there simply is no other option. Both realities drive starkly into view as the older and younger woman share their detailed experiences.
But hands-down the most compelling moments of “Part 2” arrive with Emmy, Nora’s daughter. Once more Hnath surprises: Emmy is in no way resentful of her mom’s having left. She recognizes her as an independent agent, and demands similar recognition in turn: she and Nora speak as equals, with Emmy demanding the respect due another proper adult, young woman or none.
And this, for Emmy, means that she demands respect for her own choices: to want to marry, to want to be wanted and held and adored, to want all the things that Nora left behind on purpose so long ago. In Bahareh Yaraghi’s show-stealing performance, Emmy reveals herself to be this play’s firm, untouchable patriarch: empowered to be “important to herself,” as British scholar Angela McRobbie writes of the post-feminist, she is likely to elicit more cheers than jeers among many in the audience.
But, again, neither Hnath nor Nora let her, nor us, just have it: when Emmy suggests the best solution to Nora’s dilemma is to fake her own death, prioritizing her father’s (and her own) social standing and economic comfort over her mother’s literal right to human subjectivity, Nora makes the difficult choice that defines her character – and potentially paves the way for a Doll’s House, Part 3.
In 2017 Max Schulman of The New Yorker reported that Hnath had called upon a variety of “feminist consultants” in crafting this script, among them some of the most important names in American cultural studies (Elaine Showalter) and Ibsen studies (Toril Moi). It shows. “A Doll’s House, Part 2” consistently delivers both patriarchy-as-usual, with all its slick, often logically persuasive please-also-consider-the-white-guys rhetoric, and its unexpected opposite: powerful, successful, independent women slogging hard against tenacious, scrupulously sexist norms, fighting for a fairer future which, they insist, really is not yet here, no matter what we want to claim from the comforts of our living rooms.
I’m a jaded feminist spectator, but by the end Hay’s Nora had me on the edge of my seat. Go see her for yourself.
Kim Solga is a Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at Western University, where she teaches on the Theatre Studies major and minor program. Her books include A Cultural History of Theatre in the Modern Age (2017), Theatre & Feminism (2015), and Performance and the Global City (2013). She writes about teaching, performance, and activism at The Activist Classroom.
A Dolls House, Part 2
By Lucas Hnath
Directed by Krista Jackson
A Mirvish co-production with the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre
Deborah Hay as Nora
Kate Hennig as Anne Marie
Paul Essiembre as Torvald
Bahareh Yaraghi as Emmy
March 23 to April 14, 2019
651 Yonge Street, Toronto
Ontario, M4Y 1Z9
416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333
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