Remember Ibsen’s Nora? Her scandalous departure from her husband and young children ends Ibsen’s proto-feminist classic A Doll’s House. But what happens next to Nora, a woman who has committed forgery, left her family, and gone off on her own in a 19th-century Norway still ruled by the patriarchal Napoleonic Code? Modern playwright Lucas Hnath has imagined an aftermath for Nora, as well as a 21st-century hash-out of the complexities of gender, work, economics, class, and duty at play in her decisions. Good Theater presents a superb production of Hnath’s richly gnarled comedic drama, featuring a coup of a cast and a triumph of both direction and design by Steve Underwood.
Nora’s former home, in Good Theater’s striking set, has a stark, sharp austerity. Two walls, blue with bone-colored moulding, meet in a strong right angle up center: We look upstage into into a hard-edged corner, into which characters often back themselves or lean face-first. Other than those two walls, one door, a wooden table, and two chairs, the set is bare. It has a No Exit kind of vibe, amply appropriate for the existential reckonings that are inescapable when Nora (Abigail Killeen) returns, after 15 years, to the home she left. She’s not here for a visit or nostalgia trip. She needs something from Torvold (James Noel Hoban), the man she left, and that something stirs up everything most fraught about her departure and absence.
Still living at Torvold’s after all these years is Anne-Marie (Maureen Butler, in fine, funny-poignant form), nurse-turned-mother to Nora’s children, and to Nora before them. She’s a little worse for wear, and not exactly thrilled now to reunite the woman she raised. “I, for the record, never thought you were dead,” she says, and then, unconvincingly, acid in her voice, watching her own finger rub against the table’s grain: “I didn’t want bad things to happen to you.”
Killeen’s arresting, difficult Nora exudes hard-won focus: she’s headstrong, pleased with herself, self-consciously self-possessed. She paces the room with power moves, an authoritative and purposeful stride, her chin up, and a forceful, better-knowing alacrity in her voice. She has something to prove and something to show for her absence as she argues with Anne-Marie, then Torvold, then her grown daughter Emmy (Hannah Daly) about marriage, men and women, the consequences of her choice, and what should happen now.
As for the man she left, Hoban’s Torvold emerges weak, wounded, and withering, all nerves and self-deprecation, tempered with a dose of resigned humor. But he rises to call Nora out for her choices — asking him for money, flirting with men, and prioritizing, finally, her own needs over the children — with a sympathetic candor and bewilderment. Hoban and Killeen are deft in modulating shifts and turns Hnath devises for Torvold and Nora through the weeds of their intractable perspectives within and outside of the social order.
As Emmy, Daly shows us a startlingly complex young woman who reveals herself as if by onion skins. Beneath Emmy’s cheery, fluid social graces lies a control and self-importance much like her mother’s. “I think I’m better at life because of you,” she says calmly to Nora, but there’s something steely beneath it; she says it at once in faux-thanks, self-congratulation, reproach, and challenge. Emmy is perhaps even savvier, more self-assured, and harder than her mother, even with her apparently more conventional attitude toward marriage — an attitude, as she herself pronounces, formed by a childhood with no models of marriage or intimacy at all.
All four actors in this stellar cast navigate their characters’ complex dynamics through beautiful physical work. As they parry and retreat, the actors cross along the long walls; they play into or out from that angular center apex. Nora’s imperious stride freezes into paralysis as Emmy challenges her. Nora sits with knees spread, taking up space like a male subway rider, while Torvold presses his knees together, pinched and precarious. Later, “I think I miss you, Nora,” Torvold says, then clutches himself, dismayed and disconsolate, as soon as the words leave his mouth. Still later, in something like rapprochement, Torvald and Nora sit on the floor like children.
What they all have to resolve isn’t easy. Like Ibsen, Hnath is ultimately concerned not so much with men or women as with human people, who are, as Good Theater’s excellent production reminds us, fascinating, heartbreaking creatures — singular, difficult, and all wanting to be the center of their worlds.
A Doll’s House Part 2 | By Lucas Hnath; directed by Steve Underwood | Good Theater, 76 Congress Street | Through March 17 | Wed-Thu 7 pm; Fri 7:30 pm; Sat 3 & 7:30 pm; Sun 2 pm | $25-32 | www.goodtheater.com