In “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” Christina Baldwin wears an iridescent cummerbund that, depending on how the light hits it, looks like two different colors. Is it purple or is it blue?
Lucas Hnath’s play is like that cummerbund, designed by Mathew J. LeFebvre: tricky and, depending on how you look at it, open to wildly different interpretations. I saw the original Broadway production in which every single word said by Laurie Metcalf, as Nora Helmer, was blunt and hilarious. It was a laugh-a-minute provocation and, despite three other fine actors on stage, it was all about Metcalf, who won a Tony Award. That is not how the Jungle Theater, and director Joanie Schultz, see the play.
At the Jungle, “Part 2” has become subtler, more thoughtful and more heartfelt — and less funny. The play follows up Henrik Ibsen’s classic, in which Nora saved her father from ruin by agreeing to marry a banker she did not love. She played the part of doll-like wife for years only to realize, at the end, that she had to walk out on her husband and children because she couldn’t keep up the act anymore. “Part 2” picks up 15 years later, when Nora returns, still happily untethered but having realized that her husband, Torvald, never signed their divorce papers and she will be in legal trouble if he doesn’t do it immediately.
The Broadway Nora was triumphant but this version of “Part 2” is much more about Baldwin’s still-questioning Nora finding herself in the same place she was 15 years earlier. As she meets her faithful housekeeper (Angela Timberman), bewildered husband (Steven Epp) and daughter (Megan Burns) — who may be about to make the same bad choices — she realizes she has not attained the freedom she thought she had.
Hnath’s play is a TED talk, from at least four sides, on the topic, “Does marriage make any sense?” and an opportunity for Nora to re-evaluate. It’s a sensitively acted and balanced production that wants us to identify with the viewpoints of all four characters and frequently asks us to believe two opposing things at the same time.
We’re told, for instance, that the play takes place in the Victorian era but the characters speak as if it’s today because many of the things that interest them still interest us. In a speech Baldwin boldly delivers directly to the audience, Nora says she’s interested in “the way the world is toward women and the way the world is wrong.” And the events on stage, in classic Ibsen fashion, place the characters’ desires in direct opposition to each other. Although there’s plenty of room to disagree about the specifics, most audience members will probably agree that Nora had to leave Torvald and that she wounded him and her children in the process.
The Jungle’s production has some wonky elements, including an opening “Star Wars” credits crawl. Projected on the back of the multitiered set, it is meant to fill us in on Ibsen’s original story, but I couldn’t read it from either the center of the house or the side. And the obvious musical choices keep telling us what to think.
But the cast is exceptional and Schultz has calibrated the play so it feels like every moment takes us deeper into the fascinating puzzle Torvald spells out when he wails, “Being with people, does it have to be so hard?”
“Part 2” is continually re-examining that question, asking, in the process: Can we gain happiness without taking it away from other people? Why do hurt people hurt people? What does freedom look like in a world where we need other people? Is life comic or tragic? Is it purple? Or is it blue?
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