It’s a bold move to take on a sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, but N.C. Stage Company accepted the challenge with A Doll’s House: Part 2, which examines what happened to Nora Helmer after she left her husband of eight years, her three young children and her prosperous life in late 19th-century Norway. The production is onstage through Sunday, Nov. 17.
Initially, it seems that the story picks up 15 years after Nora (played by Jennifer Austin) slammed the door on her marriage. She faced an uncertain future, and surely her prospects were grim given the options for women in the 1870s. Laws, religious beliefs, limited education and family expectations shaped women’s lives then and offered few rights or freedoms.
Playwright Lucas Hnath shakes up audience expectations, especially with the time period. The sumptuous costumes lead us to think we’re in the Norway of 1894, but Torvald (Charlie Flynn-McIver) enters his home carrying a laptop computer. Daughter Emmy (Emma Lenderman) sips from a Starbucks to-go cup. The dissonance signals we’ve entered a story whose themes resonate today. This family’s disintegration looks disturbingly contemporary. Gender wars that date back more than a century continue.
Set design is sparse, yet symbolic. Most prominent is the blue and white wall with a large door in the center. The elegant, blue wallpaper lacks paintings, a clock, and other decorative elements. Torvald removed them because they reminded him of Nora, but the outlines remain. Nora’s absence lingers in the house like the ghost marks on the wallpaper. A gold and red Oriental rug and a few pieces of furniture complete the room.
Anticipation builds as Nora and Torvald prepare to confront each other. She has returned for the divorce he never filed. Now a successful writer, Nora lives well and enjoys speaking her mind. However, since she wrote under a pseudonym and championed the end of marriage in her works, a judge plans to reveal her true identity. The judge’s wife left him after reading one of Nora’s books, probably the one titled Bad Wife. Her financial and professional accomplishments in jeopardy, Nora wants to protect herself and induce Torvald to legally divorce her. Austin and Flynn-McIver deliver passionate, grounded performances and are well-matched in their final showdown.
The standout confrontation, however, is the one between Anne Marie (Jane Bushway), the family nanny and housekeeper, and Nora. The supposed solidarity between women is fractured. Nora seeks an ally to help her persuade Torvald to divorce her. But what about the wreckage she left behind? Anne Marie cleaned that up, too. Bushway’s character is foul-mouthed and angry because Nora fails to acknowledge Anne Marie’s own lack of choices in life. Nora’s privilege blinds her to what Anne Marie had to accept. The rage bubbling inside Anne Marie redirects the portrait of marriage toward a reminder that sisterhood is more slogan than reality.
Director Anne Thibault assembled a powerful cast. Their energy onstage draws us toward a conclusion that is surprising and true to Ibsen’s idea that freedom requires sacrifices.
WHAT: A Doll’s House: Part 2
WHERE: N.C. Stage Company, 15 Stage Lane, ncstage.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, Nov. 17. Wednesdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., with additional matinees on Saturdays, Nov. 9 and 16. $18-$36 general/$10 students