Nora slamming the door at the end of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” has to be one of the most famous exits in all dramatic literature. It stunned and excited audiences in 1879 enough to ensure the popularity of this decidedly verbose play over the years. It continues to be a challenge for the actor playing Nora. We can thank playwright Lucas Hnath for considering Nora’s fate by allowing her to come back and have her say in “A Doll’s House, Part 2.”
From all reports, this play, which was lauded on Broadway in 2017 and won a Tony for its leading lady, has had a huge subsequent success. It is currently the most produced new play in regional theaters across the country. Having seen the play on Broadway, I would like to assure those considering to see it at the George Street Playhouse, that this production — especially the performance by leading actress Kellie Overbey — is simply terrific.
Briefly for those who may not know the premise of the play or this sequel: Nora makes up her mind to leave her oppressive husband and two children and take her chances in the world. This brings us to the sequel in which Nora returns 15 years later as a successful author of women’s literature. Writing under a pseudonym, Nora is a highly motivated, liberated, aggressively independent woman, a kind of 19th-century Gloria Steinem. She is dedicated to helping women free themselves from a need to see marriage as a goal and to see marriage as a prison.
Assuming that her husband, Torvald (Andrew Garman), has fulfilled his promise to divorce her, Nora has signed contracts, purchased property, and openly engaged in affairs with men. The problem that brings Nora home is her discovery that Torvald had not filed for divorce, making all her actions illegal and subject to prosecution under the law. Facing humiliation and a possible jail sentence, Nora hopes to get Torvald to fulfill the agreement made 15 years ago.
While hardly revelatory in showing how differently men and women once performed their roles in a marriage, Hnath’s play gives the 19th-century Nora a shot of 21st-century activism. This play dramatically examines both how much and how little has been achieved in redefining relationships in a marriage, equality under the law, and equanimity in our social lives.
It takes a while for the nanny, Anne Marie (a wonderfully brittle Ann McDonough), to hear the knocking, answer the door, and gradually deal with the shock of seeing Nora, so well dressed and self-assured. The action is played out over a few days, during which Nora attempts to persuade both Torvald to sign the divorce papers and also get the support of their daughter, Emmy (Lily Santiago). This action could, as it is revealed, compromise Torvald’s reputation as well as Emmy’s impending marriage.
Though filled to the brim with discourse, it is also marked with bursts of diverging opinions. Nora makes quite an admirable case for herself, the hard choices she had made, and the role she has subsequently assumed to inspire and motivate women. I commend Overbey’s forceful but never abrasive approach to the role.
But it is Torvald’s and Emma’s responses that are equally credible. It is to Garman’s credit that we can see the gradual changes in Torvald’s perspective and a possible change of heart. Santiago is totally persuasive as Emma, a young woman whose more traditional values have shaped her life.
This play marks the directorial debut for Betsy Aidem, and it is an impressive one. The action of this 90-minute play never looks studied but always appears spontaneous and bristling despite being set within a purposefully lack-luster entryroom designed by Deb O. Thank you to costume designer Olivera Gajic for her fine period attire. Hnath may have planted a few period-questionable expletives into the otherwise sterling text, but they provoke laughs.
Just as an aside: I had to attend a post-opening performance and was seated in the next-to-last row. Their temporary theater has a nice rake with no obstructed view, and I heard every word.
A Doll’s House, Part 2, George Street Playhouse, 103 College Farm Road, New Brunswick. Through December 23. $25 to $72. 732-246-7717 or www.georgestreetplayhouse.org.