Nothing’s Fragile in Gablestage’s Wildly Entertaining ‘a Doll’s House, Part 2’
The stage looks nearly empty, not counting arguably the most famous door in all of drama. A fleeting refresher via oversized projected words reminds the audience of the play that inspired the one it’s about to watch. Then four actors, beautifully dressed in period clothing, enter dancing and twitching, seemingly transported from the 19th to the 21st century.
Welcome to GableStage’s wildly entertaining, engaging production of Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2.”
Director Bari Newport and her artistic collaborators have wholeheartedly embraced the modernity of Hnath’s 2017 Broadway follow-up to 1879’s “A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen, the hugely influential playwright considered the father of theatrical modernism.
In imagining what might have happened to Nora Helmer in the 15 years since she left her husband and three children to begin a journey of self-discovery, Hnath utilizes contemporary language (vulgarities included) and notions (Nora’s ex, Torvald, dives into mansplaining) to draw the audience into a boisterous comedy brimming with thought-provoking ideas. Women’s roles and options, marriage as an institution, self-delusion versus self-knowledge are just some of the concepts up for debate in “A Doll’s House, Part 2.”
Newport, in her second season as GableStage’s producing artistic director, delivers a crisply assured version of Hnath’s play, and it’s among the best work she’s done to date since her arrival.
The cast blends tonally in-synch performances from a trio of theater veterans and a newcomer.
As Nora, who suddenly returns after a decade and a half of being mysteriously incommunicado, Rachel Burttram paints an adroit portrait of a complex woman. She’s wide-eyed, calculating, manipulative, funny, sometimes cruel. Listen as she describes the “few” lovers she’s had – the list is a bit longer and more detailed than expected – then follows that with gasping-for-breath laughter when Torvald tells her of his one relationship with a widowed neighbor. For the wife and husband who parted so suddenly, the settling of scores is clearly incomplete.
Brendan Powers, Burttram’s real-life husband, plays Torvald. The two were paired in a 2020 production of “A Doll’s House, Part 2” at Florida Repertory Theatre in Fort Myers, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced that company to film and stream its dress rehearsal. It’s wonderful that Powers and Burttram are able to circle back to bring their characters to life for rapt, delighted audiences in Newport’s vision of the play.
Tall and striking, Powers portrays a man of Torvald Helmer’s place and time, someone determined to preserve his good reputation at all costs. Though scarred by Nora’s abandonment, he maintains emotional control while tossing cool digs her way. So, when he loses it – and he does, justifiably, thoroughly – it’s a grandly dramatic moment. Knowing he and Burttram are happily married, watching them play Ibsen and Hnath’s unhappy duo is all the more impressive.
As Anne Marie, the former nanny and housekeeper who raised Nora and Nora’s three children, four-time Carbonell Award winner Elizabeth Dimon deploys her vast array of skills in portraying a woman who gave up a life of her own to tend to the Helmers.
She gets laughs on her first entrance from the back of the theater, responding to the unseen Nora’s repeated knocking, when she gives the audience the stink eye as if to say, “What? You couldn’t answer the door?” Her Anne Marie combines warmth with a brutally honest assessment of Nora’s behavior and its enduring consequences.
Making her professional debut, New World School of the Arts grad Yasmine Harrell plays the Helmers’ youngest, their engaged daughter Emmy. With zero memory of her mother, Emmy says politely, “It’s very nice to meet you.”
Ill-at-ease but determined to enlist her daughter’s help in getting Torvald to sign a life-altering document, Nora applies her intellectual wiles, only to discover that her clever daughter is a formidable opponent. Harrell convincingly conveys Emmy’s strength and self-possession as she talks about how her mother’s decisions helped shape her own.
Throughout the brisk 90-minute play, the four characters engage in one-on-one debates, exchanges that land with power or humor or both thanks to Hnath’s craftsmanship and Newport’s staging. When Nora and Torvald are verbally duking it out, they take turns snapping their fingers, changing the lighting to signal who’s in control.
The invisible fourth wall separating the world of the play from the audience doesn’t exist here. Nora and Emmy take big steps off the stage and into the audience. You never know where Anne Marie will turn up. The message: We’re all having this artistic experience together.
In terms of design, the traditional look of Jacquelyn Loy’s costumes (the period is specified in Hnath’s script) contrasts with every other element. Nora’s ensemble is especially grand: a huge red hat bedecked with feathers and flowers, an elegant coat and gown in rich red with black details. The scarlet hue isn’t meant to suggest a “fallen” woman; rather, her striking style conveys her success and the different person she has become.
The deceptively simple set by in-demand Frank J. Oliva, whose career began at nearby Area Stage Company and now includes work throughout the country (Broadway included), is a clean open space in which those big projections of words (by Jamie Godwin) can live.
The “furniture” consists of simple cubes, at one point boldly employed by Burttram’s Nora in a way that suggests she’s marking her territory. Tony Galaska’s terrific, change-on-a-dime lighting and Sean McGinley’s great sound design (which inspires Powers’s Torvald to do something that looks like an awkward version of the macarena) are impeccable.
In “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” Hnath looks through contemporary eyes at the world Ibsen created. Now at GableStage, thanks to Newport and company, so do we.
WHAT: “A Doll’s House, Part 2” by Lucas Hnath
WHERE: GableStage in the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables
WHEN: 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday (additional matinee Saturday, March 18), through Sunday, March 19 (streaming version available March 3-19 during regular performances). Free reading of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” 2 p.m. Saturday, March 11.
COST: $45-$75 (streaming ticket $27)
INFORMATION: 305-445-1119 or gablestage.org.