Slammed door opens in Doll’s House, Part 2 at Berkeley Rep

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Nancy E. Carroll (left) is Anne Marie and Mary Beth Fisher is Nora in Berkeley Rep’s production of A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath. Below: John Judd’s Torvald explores the past with Fisher’s Nora. Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

When last we heard from Nora Helmer, she had left her husband with the slam of a door. That was (spoiler alert!) the end of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 drama A Doll’s House. In the almost 140 years since that door slammed, Nora has been reviled and celebrated for her forward-looking feminist stance on equality and her willingness to leave her three young children behind as she forged a new life away from the traditional bonds of marriage.

Now playwright Lucas Hnath imagines what happened to Nora after she stepped through that door in the audaciously titled A Doll’s House, Part 2, which opens the Berkeley Repertory Theatre season in a razor-sharp, vital and funny production directed by Les Waters.

That door, once so famously slammed, now begins the play. First there’s a knock, then a pounding. Then there’s Nora, back in her family home for the first time in 15 years. When Anne Marie, the governess who raised Nora and who raised Nora’s children after she fled, answers the door, she says, “Oh, Nora,” and it’s so fitting and funny and sad that it sounds like she’s saying, “Oh, no!”

For 90 minutes, Nora wrestles with that fateful decision she made a decade and a half before, and the most extraordinary thing abut Hnath’s play is not simply that it’s a crackling good play full of ideas and arguments and regret and ferocity and humor. No, the really extraordinary thing is that it’s actually a worthy sequel to Ibsen. Though his idiom feels much more contemporary than Ibsen (especially in translation), Hnath honors Ibsen and his characters and, most importantly, the challenges that continue to make the original Doll’s House such a powerful drama. Sadly, and perhaps not surprisingly, equality between women and men hasn’t quite come to pass in 140 years.

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In Hnath’s reacquaintance with Nora, he finds her successful in her own right, living as freely as a woman can in late 19th century Norway, with a career and lovers and a defiant attitude toward marriage, an institution she sees simply as torture. But she finds herself in a predicament that she can only solve with the assistance, much to her dismay, of her ex-husband, Torvald. That’s why she’s back in town.

Waters’ production is eloquent and gorgeous in its simplicity. The set by Andrew Boyce turns the Roda stage into a a mostly bare room, blonde wood floors, unadorned walls and only four pieces of furniture – coatrack, table, two chairs. Those chairs are vital to Waters’ staging. As he positions his characters for their battles, the chairs are like game pieces, and with the lighting by Yi Zhao, some of the stage pictures he creates look like they could be right of a Bergman film.

Nora’s success is exquisitely conveyed in her dress, designed by Annie Smart, which receives an appreciative gasp from the audience when she whips off her coat to reveal it.

As beautiful as the dress is, its power also comes from the way Mary Beth Fisher wears it. Her Nora owns her space. She has fought and won, but being back in Torvald’s house has her a little off-kilter, and we see her argue her way back to confidence and then lose it again in the face of actual human pain she has caused. We also see Nora try to manipulate not only Torvald (John Judd) but also Anne Marie (Nancy E. Carroll), a potential ally in Nora’s plan to wrest what she needs from Torvald.

Nora is smart and complicated and full of fury at a system that keeps her, in her words, “beholden to bad rules…so many bad rules in this world.” Fisher’s performance is electric, especially in her scenes with Judd’s Torvald. There’s so much history between them, so much said and unsaid. If Torvald’s journey in the course of a single day seems a bit much, Judd is so believable he can pull it off.

Carroll as the beleaguered Anne Marie bears a heavy world weariness that renders almost everything she says equal parts funny and sad. There’s a lot of fury in her, too, and Carroll’s performance is crystalline in every aspect.

The play’s final test for Nora is the one she most wanted to avoid: a confrontation with one of her children. As Emmy, Nikki Massoud slowly reveals the inner conflict of an abandoned child finally able to confront the mother who left her with equal parts rage, indifference, revenge and hurt.

Waters deftly balances humor and drama, though the play ends up feeling more like a drama, especially where Nora and Torvald are concerned.

A Doll’s House, Part 2 is thought provoking and incredibly entertaining. It’s also substantial in that it sits with you afterward. You can leave the doll’s house, but it doesn’t leave you.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 continues through Oct. 21 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$97. Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

Sacred and profane: much to mull in Playhouse’s Christians

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Pastor Paul (Anthony Fusco) reveals an urgent change in his faith during a sermon at his mega-church in Lucas Hnath’s The Christians at San Francisco Playhouse. Below: The cast of The Christians includes (from left) Millie Brooks as Jenny, Lance Gardner as Assistant Pastor Joshua, Fusco as Pastor Paul, Stephanie Prentice as Elizabeth and Warren David Keith as Elder Jay. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

While the San Francisco Playhouse audience was delving into Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, a powerful, fraught examination of faith and organized religion, protestors were shutting down airports in demonstrations against the Trump administration’s ban on immigrants from countries whose religions posed a perceived threat to our nation. In other words, the spiritual and emotional chaos inside and outside the theater were well matched.

Questions of faith – why we believe what we believe, why we want or need to believe what we believe, how we choose to live in our faith – will never be answered because each human being contains a multitude of answers at any given moment. Faith is powerful, elusive and subject to influence by ego, fear, instability, anger, desperation, peer pressure, greed and joy. In only 90 concentrated minutes, Hnath (one of the country’s hottest playwrights) manages to touch on all of that and provoke some hefty, complicated and unresolvable responses.

The fact that church is already so much like theater is exploited in the set-up for Hnath’s play. For the SF Playhouse production that opened on Saturday, Jan. 28, director and set designer Bill English turns the theater into a sleek contemporary mega-church somewhere in America in the 21st century. It’s the kind of church, we’re told, that has a cafe and a bookshop in the lobby and a parking lot so big you’ll get lost if you’re not careful. Almost as prominent as the abstract stained-glass windows are the video monitors hovering above the choir (played here by members of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco). The setting feels so real that when Pastor Paul asks us to bow our heads in prayer, I looked around the audience half expecting audience member/congregants to do his bidding.

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As you might expect in a church of this size, the speakers use microphones, a detail that will come to complicate the play as it takes on more dimension. But at its start, The Christians is simply a re-creation of a Sunday church service. Pastor Paul (the always authentic and compelling Anthony Fusco invites us to a day of celebration: all debts incurred by the church in the building of its massive new home have been paid. He also drops a bombshell revelation: God has revealed to him that there is no such thing as hell – if anything, we are in hell now and striving, through Christ, to evolve heavenward.

Such a profound change in belief does not sit well with Assistant Pastor Joshua (Lance Gardner), who immediately engages Pastor Paul in a scripture-laden debate. From here, the straightforward sermon-as-play deviates, and Paul becomes our guide through the fallout form his revelation. Interestingly, Hnath never allows the play to change settings: all the ensuing scenes take place in the pulpit and with the characters holding the microphones as if they were still in front of the congregation. At times, as when Pastor Paul is in discussion with Elder Jay (Warren David Keith), a member of the church’s board of directors, or with his wife, Elizabeth (Stephanie Prentice), they are speaking face to face with microphones in hand as if performing a duet minus the music. It’s a bizarre visual and is somewhat detrimental to the emotional impact of the scenes, but the notion of these discussions and debates playing out in an amplified and public way has an unnerving effect. And then there are the tangles and and dangers of those microphone chords getting in the way – communication is never easy here.

If God can reveal to Paul that there is no hell, he can just as easily reveal to Joshua that there is. When a single mother congregant (Millie Brooks) express her conflicted feelings about both ways of thinking, Paul fails to provide compelling answers, and his church spirals into full schism. Hnath doesn’t go for clear heroes and villains here, and the public beliefs are allowed to show their personal roots. There’s nothing public here that isn’t also bound to deeply held beliefs from childhood or woven into our most intimate family relationships.

Faith is such a complex thing. It can elevate and buffer us from the challenges of life. It can even promise eternal life with other believers, all the while dividing and alienating us in this life. How we invest our faith is among life’s most challenging issues, and in this particular moment, it seems to be dividing the nation and, indeed, the world, as it has for seemingly ever. That’s one of the reasons Pastor Paul’s revelation is so divisive. It’s so simple and, in may ways, removes the intricate structure of organized religion from the heaven-hell-sinner-saint equation. “We create an insurmountable distance,” he says, “where there is no distance at all.” Amen.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lucas Hnath’s The Christians continues through March 11 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$125. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.