Steppenwolf Theatre(Downstairs)

A Doll’s House, Part 2

At the Steppenwolf (Downstairs) Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Chicago – In 1879, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen shocked European society with “A Doll’s House,” a drama that ends with a woman throwing off the stifling shackles of middle class marriage and motherhood to embark on a new life of independence. Nora Helmer’s decision to discard her secure domestic life for the hazards of going it alone in a conservative society has become an icon of feminism, making Nora Helmer among the early heroines of feminist literature.

American playwright Lucas Hnath has composed a modern epilogue to “A Doll’s House,” riffing on Nora’s return home 15 years after her controversial departure. The play won a Tony Award on Broadway for Steppenwolf company member Laurie Metcalf and the Steppenwolf is presenting the local premiere of the play, regrettably without Metcalf in the cast.

Photo Credit:
Michael Brosilow

Ibsen’s original was a full blooded three act play. Hnath has composed a 90-minute one act chamber play with only three characters other than Nora. It’s actually a round robin debate as Nora faces off against her abandoned husband Torvald, the family’s feisty old maid Anne Marie, and Nora’s daughter Emmy, now grown into a young woman with an independent mind of her own, but not a mind that meshes with her mother’s world view. The 1879 play ended with Nora’s famous offstage closing of a door that marked her embarkation of her new life. Hnath begins his drama with an insistent knocking on the door situated prominently at stage rear. This time it’s Nora knocking to reenter the home she had abandoned 15 years ago. Nora returns because she has discovered that her husband had failed to file for divorce in 1879 and she has been breaking Norwegian law for all those years (she had become a successful author writing under a pseudonym) by undertaking business deals that required her husband’s approval. So she has unintentionally been committing fraud. At the same time, Torvald has been collecting money from the government as a widower after letting the outside world think that Nora was dead. So Torvald could be guilty of fraud himself.

The business about the divorce is the slender reed of plot that allows the four characters to expound at length and often eloquently their views on marriage, family, love and romance, women’s rights (and the lack thereof) and kindred issues. The articulate views of Ann Marie, Torvald, and Emmy are in conflict with Nora’s attitudes as Hnath allows ample verbal space for the give and take conversations that make up the substance of the play.

In an interview with director Robin Witt in the show’s playbill, Witt states that Hnath’s play can stand perfectly on its own, without any prior familiarity with the Ibsen original. I’m not so sure. Hnath does supply enough plot references to give audiences a bit of background on “A Doll’s House,” but the first play, with its greater length, larger number of characters, and strong narrative, gives a fuller portrait of the stultifying society that encloses Nora to the breaking point. We get a credible, and disturbing, picture of what Nora and other women were up against, with Nora finding the strength of character to break out of her doll’s house life to seek a more fulfilling life elsewhere. We miss this background shading while observing the Nora of 1894.

Nora starts off the modern play with an extended recap of her conversion to independence in her meeting with Ann Marie who had answered that insistent knocking. Anne Marie is an impatient listener and fires back her grievances against Nora for abandoning her family and leaving the domestic responsibilities, by default, to the maid. Later, Torvald and Emmy both give as good as they get, with Torvald, a somewhat craven character in the 1879 play, coming across as a man, at least in his own mind, more sinned against than sinning by Nora’s departure. He speaks with passion and sincerity and his case is persuasive. The same can be said for Emmy in her turn in the debate. Emmy wants the life that Nora has rejected and her reasons are not easily ignored.

Sandra Marquez’s Nora holds the stage well enough but I sensed there were layers in the character that Marquez did not explore. As a result, the other three figures all came off as better spoken and better grounded in their attitudes than Nora. If the mini debates were graded on points, Anne Marie, Emmy, and especially Torvald would have won. That’s also a tribute to the vivid and urgent performances provided by Yasen Peyankov (Torvald), Barbara E Robertson (Anne Marie), and Celeste M. Cooper (Emmy). The play ends on an ambiguous, not to say weak, note, allowing the viewer to wonder exactly what Nora accomplished in her return, if anything.

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

The staging takes some chances, not always beneficial to the play. The production is presented in the large Downstairs Theatre, which dwarfs the four actors. The intimacy of the work would have benefited from being located in the smaller Upstairs Theatre, perhaps in the round rather than in the Downstairs proscenium venue.

Hnath has injected some very modern profanity into the dialogue, which gets easy laughs from the audience, especially when the elderly Anne Marie drops an f-bomb or other obscenities. There is no specific time frame listed for the play but it seems to be  1894, a time when parlor maids likely did not express themselves so freely with four letter words in the presence of their employers.

The physical production is dominated by Courtney O’Neill’s scenic design, which consists mostly of a few period chairs and lots of open space for the performers to work in. Izumi Inaba’s costumes lend the production a distinct late 19th century appearance. The various scenes are introduced by a large projection of the name of the entering character (lighting by Christine Binder), underscored by a portentous thunderclap of sound by sound designer Thomas Dixon.

About 30 members of the audience are seated on the stage against the back wall. At first their presence may be a bit of a distraction to the main audience, but the viewers should adjust quickly. The dramatic or theatrical value of the seating eluded me but the tickets are much cheaper than the seats in the main auditorium.

In the final analysis, “A Doll’s House, Part 2” is an interesting conceit by one of the most imaginative American playwrights working today. Hnath preserves Nora as the star of the drama, but he impresses with his skill at writing three-dimensional supporting characters, each with his or her side of the story to tell. The Laurie Metcalf performance must have made “Part 2” really special.

The show gets a rating of stars.

“A Doll’s House, Part 2” runs through March 17 at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 North Halsted Street. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 3 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $99 with on stage seating at $30. Call 312 335 1650 or visit

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