Review: Whatever happened to Ibsen’s Nora?

Two actors play in "A Doll's House, Part 2."
Torvald, played by Steven Epp, and Nora, played by Christina Baldwin, confront each other in "A Doll's House, Part 2."
Courtesy of Lauren B. Photography

The whole point of Henrik Ibsen’s powerful play, “A Doll’s House,” is the way it ends. Nora, the hero of the story, leaves. She quits her home, her husband, her children, her lifelong nanny, and especially the role that society wants her to play.

For a housewife in the Norway of 1879 to walk out like that is an act of bravery. She is stepping into a great unknown.

To try to make that unknown known is an act of bravery, too, and that’s what the playwright Lucas Hnath does in “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” now playing at the Jungle Theater.

Hnath spins the story of Nora Helmer 15 years into the future. She might have died in the gutter, but instead she’s become a huge success as a novelist. When Nora arrives for a visit at the home she left, her former nanny observes that she’s been lucky.

“Not resourceful?” Nora counters. In her view, luck had nothing to do with it.

All these years she has been living the life of a feminist revolutionary. She no longer believes in the institution of marriage, and declares that nobody else does, either, “not if they’re being honest with themselves.” Marriage is “more cruel than kind,” she says, predicting the practice will last no more than another 20 or 30 years.

Nora is back because she recently learned that her ex-husband, Torvald, isn’t an ex at all. He never filed the papers to get a divorce. This puts Nora in an untenable position because she has done things only a single woman can get away with.

She’s signed contracts without her husband’s permission. She’s had affairs. And she’s written a semi-autobiographical novel that exposes Torvald for the jerk he was — and possibly still is.

Torvald’s initial reaction to Nora’s return is a glacier’s worth of emotional distance. When he revives enough to have a conversation, he sums up their relationship like this: “I did so much for you. I loved you. And you threw it away.”

In other words, Torvald still doesn’t get it. His idea of love was to treat Nora as a plaything, calling her by pet names like “my squirrel” or “little lark.” Nora gave him a 15-year timeout to think about it, but he seems to have spent most of that time pining for the perfect home he can’t have – and never did have.

The years have made Torvald smaller and Nora bigger, setting the stage for a fight that nearly blows the doors off the place. Christina Baldwin’s Nora and Steven Epp’s Torvald rage at each other with an emotional ferocity that Ibsen never allowed their characters.

Speaking of doors, the Helmer apartment’s front door is a tribute to Chelsea Warren’s set design. This is no flimsy piece of painted canvas. It’s a worthy successor to the door that slams at the end of the original “Doll’s House,” known as the slam heard around the world. When this door slams, they can probably hear it in Uptown.

We don’t get to learn the title of Nora’s blockbuster novel, but its subject matter reminded me of another feminist trailblazer, the late author and screenwriter Nora Ephron.

Her autobiographical novel, “Heartburn,” was also a bestseller. Her ex-husband, Carl Bernstein, was said to be furious about his depiction in it, much as Torvald is furious about his. And Ephron used to tell interviewers that she was named after Ibsen’s Nora.

Sequels upon sequels, I wonder what will happen in Part 3. For now, Part 2 continues at the Jungle through Feb. 23.

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