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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

A Doll's House, Part 2
Palo Alto Players
Review by Eddie Reynolds | Season Schedule

Also see Eddie's reviews of Stage Kiss, The Pianist of Willesden Lane and Taking Steps


Gabriella Grier and Michael Champlin
Photo by Joyce Goldschmid
There is nothing more magical than a night at live theatre when a brilliant script, inspired direction, and a perfectly cast set of actors combine with setting, lighting, sound and costumes such that each makes its own unique contribution to produce as near perfect an evening as possible. That's how I felt as I exited Lucie Stern Theater after thoroughly enjoying every minute of the ninety of Palo Alto Players' current production of Lucas Hnath's 2017 Tony-nominated play, A Doll's House, Part 2.

Anyone who has ever seen, read, or even heard of Henrik Ibsen's 1879 classic play A Doll's House has probably created some internal scenario of what happened in the weeks, months, and/or years after young wife/mother Nora Helmer slammed the door to her house, leaving her husband and three young children in order to go out into the world and discover her real self. How can all of us who are Ibsen fans not be eager to see Nora return fifteen years later, to find out what happened to her, and to see the reactions of those left behind?

But what soon becomes clear about the spectacularly conceived and scripted A Doll's House, Part 2 is that Lucas Hnath's new work is not a sequel; it is a play full of both drama and comedy that stands independently on its own with no need to have seen Ibsen's original. When it is put into the hands of Jeffrey Lo, Nora's story particularly zings with new life and insights as the director instills a sense of modernity into this Norwegian setting of 1894, inviting us to compare Nora's hopes for a better world for women twenty to thirty years out and the visions the #MeToo generation of women currently have for all our futures in the coming decades.

After the final words of Ibsen's original script scroll on a screen before us, a commandingly large door descends the wall of the mostly empty, stage-filling room—the white walls decorated in gigantic flowers and bows all same cornflower blue color as the door (part of Christopher Fitzer's simple but stunning set design). What is immediately clear when the castle-size door opens and Nora appears in this 1894 Norwegian household is that this runaway has since been quite successful and is a woman full of self-assurance. Bursting in from the snowy outside and displaying a strong hint of independent confidence, she arrives in a high-styled red outfit, parasol, and feathered hat and totally shocks a dumbstruck Anne Marie—a limping, aged woman who once raised Nora as her nanny and subsequently raised Nora's three, abandoned children to their adulthood. Nora lets it be known, "I'm not the same person who left through that door." Anne Marie agrees, noting, "You got a little fatter. You got a little older ... And how are your insides?"

That kind of wry humor continually finds its way into Hnath's smart script as well as into choices of Lo's direction, the latter choosing to make it ever clear Nora is a woman before her time and worthy of our time as she more than once pulls out of her late nineteenth century bag a canned soda, pops the top, and takes a smirky sip.

In Part One of five that claims the title "Nora" (as projected on the room's back wall), Gabrielle Grier powerfully and passionately makes Nora's case to the stunned, mostly silent, and slightly growly Anne Marie (Judith Miller) how, as a highly successful writer of books about women, she has come to believe that marriage is an institution long overdue its deserved extinction—something she believes will inevitably happen within a few decades. "Marriage ... destroys women's lives," she preaches to the now clearly scowling and disagreeing Anne Marie. "Most people would be happier, more fulfilled without it."

Triumphant in her exposé on the evils of marriage, Nora proceeds to explain why she has arrived. She has recently discovered that the husband she abruptly left never filed for divorce—Norway at the time being a country where only the male could file for divorce for no expressed reason and where a woman could only do so if she could prove her husband had done something physically awful and threatening to her. Further, wives at that time could not do business on their own without their husband's approval.

A judge who is upset that his wife left him after reading one of Nora's books has discovered Nora's true identity even though she writes under a pseudonym. He also knows she is not yet divorced and has proof of her conducting business without her still-husband's approval. That judge now threatens to expose her and most probably ruin her reputation, end her career, and send her to prison.

With her ever-moving hands dramatically illustrating in a myriad of ways her spoken words, Nora explains to the dumbfounded Anne Marie that she is looking for a way out of this predicament; and for that, she needs and fully expects cooperation from the man to whom she is in fact still his lawfully wedded. She also is seeking and sure she will get Anne Marie's aid. However, the four-letter-word, defiant responses she receives from her once-nanny are those that neither a wide-mouthed Nora nor us as a chuckling audience have expected to hear from an elderly nanny in the late 1800s.

Both Gabrielle Grier and Judith Miller are extraordinarily splendid in their separate portrayals of two women who have very different outlooks on the role of women in their society. Ms. Grier's Nora is constantly adjusting her arguments and approaches to convince first Anne Marie and later her husband Torvald, and even her now-grown daughter Emmy, that she deserves their help to remedy this injustice to her—an injustice in her view that is just one of many that all women suffer in a male-dominated world. She paces the floor back and forth, first like a fierce defender convincing a skeptical jury of the injustices handed her and all women in this unfair world ruled by men and then as a prosecutor making an even stronger case that men are guilty of a crime for which she should not be made to suffer. At the same time as she runs into what seem often as dead ends trying to convince others to help her, Nora gains even more certainty in her own beliefs and next steps, leading to some surprising decisions about her future that only escalate her commanding presence and her total embodiment of self-assuredness.

As Anne Marie, Judith Miller ensures the limping, body-aching nanny she plays is just as strong in her own determined view of what is right and wrong and of what she will and will not do no matter how persuasive her former charge is in her case making. Her numerous facial expressions provide a silent, ongoing script of a full array of clearly communicated emotions and messages, even when no words are crossing her lips. But when she does speak, Ms. Miller's Anne Marie has a distinct voice whose edgy melody of pitches dances all over the scale, from high to low and everything in between. Whenever she is on stage, it is difficult to divert one's eyes from her in order to see what reactions Anne Marie will next have, even when the now-housekeeper is simply slumped on a chair in sullen silence.

When husband/banker Torvald unexpectedly arrives and sees the surprise visitor, his first reaction is, "I have to go to the bathroom." After he returns, Michael Champlin does everything he can as Torvald to avoid directly looking at Nora, as they perform a strange, two-steps-this-way, two-steps-that-way dance where he refuses ever to face his determined partner (just one more illustration of Jeffrey Lo's fabulous directional choices). The more Nora becomes almost frenetic in her arguments of why he must help her, the more non-responsive he becomes, except for his continual turning away from her. But eventually, the pressure we can see is building in a face and body about to erupt does let loose in a full explosion of emotions as he counters with accusations of his own betrayal in a voice that now finds its own power of bitter remorse that cuts deep with its sharpness. Torvald's story—like Nora's and Anne Marie's—becomes one that has its own convincing nature, with Mr. Champlin also giving a stellar performance that grows in its nuance and depth of expression as his Torvald reveals a part of his inner nature, emotional capacity, and noble character that has thus far been hidden to those who know him best.

The final member of this excellent four-person cast is Katherine Hamilton as Emmy, a late-teen but already a woman in her own right who has no memory of her mother Nora. When the two meet, Emmy is talk-without-breath chatty, fully confident in her own person, and also rather matter-of-fact in meeting this stranger who is her mother. Like her mother, Emmy has her own deeply held beliefs about marriage, family and womanhood; her equal passion of positions quite opposite to her mother's clearly cause both pride and pain in the mother who had no hand in her raising. The interactions between mother and daughter are fabulously conceived and orchestrated, one more example of the play's overall spell-binding effects as family members come to grips with their shared and unshared histories, beliefs, and plans of action.

The near-vacant stage offers ample room for the words of the playwright and the personalities of the four principals to fill in all the details one needs to see the complete picture vividly. Three clear, plastic chairs one might see in a modern Scandinavian shop are the only furniture on the stage save one coat tree. The modern-day chairs are another hint that the wide range of arguments, hopes, fears and warnings voiced by the various characters about marriage, the role of women in society, and the dominance of men over women are not those simply confined to a repressed world one hundred thirty years ago.

Carolyn A. Guggemos's lighting reflects in subtle but astoundingly telling shades of dim and brightness and of white and various soft-toned colors the shifting moods, the sudden revelations, and the announced decisions of the story unfolding before us. Melissa Sanchez's period costumes beautifully suit each character, providing their own synopsis of each one's personality, including the particularly stunning and sophisticated ensemble that Nora so majestically and triumphantly wears for her surprise return. Her mastery of design is capped off by the artistry of Gwyneth Price-Panos' hair and make-up design. Finally, sound designer Jeff Grafton's choice of piano selections that tie each of the five scenes to the next are a chronicle of the tunes of the times as well as the progressing moods of the story.

Nora, Torvald, Emmy, and Anne Marie each take the opportunity to voice their stories and their world views; and each exposes reasons for us to sympathize with them and/or to question their decisions and viewpoints. Their interactions and stances provide rich fodder for follow-up contemplations and discussions by audience members, with the playwright being coy enough never to tip his hand as to which member he favors. Lucas Hnath's presentation is more as an observer/reporter with no taking of sides, one way or the other.

Two years ago, a co-production of A Doll's House, Part 2 was staged here in the Bay Area to rave reviews by critics and audiences alike by Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Huntington Theatre Company. Lucas Hnath's script is so gripping, funny, and entertaining and the issues/questions it raises are so timely that, two years later, a second visit for anyone who saw the original Bay Area production is well worth it. But given this current production that breaks new grounds in interpretations and is a production in which every element is first-class, Palo Alto Players' A Doll's House, Part 2 easily deserves a must-see recommendation for both newcomers and returnees to Lucas Hnath's story of Nora's return.

A Doll's House, Part 2 runs through February 2, 2020 at Palo Alto Players, the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto CA. For tickets and information, please visit www.paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.


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