Henrik Ibsen’s classic 1879 play “A Doll’s House” ends with a sort of leap of faith: Bucking social convention, Nora Helmer leaves her unsatisfying marriage for … something else. She doesn’t know exactly what. But it’s got to be better.
As playwright Lucas Hnath underscores, a bit heavy-handedly, in his 2017 sequel, “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” when Nora shows up again 15 years later, she enters through the same door she walked through, back then, to begin her new life. And once again, she takes everyone by surprise.
“A Doll’s House” basically ended with a cliffhanger. What was going to happen to Nora, on her own? With “Part 2,” Hnath boldly imagines an answer to this question.
“A Doll’s House, Part 2” was presented on Broadway in 2017, earning eight Tony nominations; Laurie Metcalf, who played Nora, walked away with the Best Actress in a Play award.
Kellie Overbey, who plays Nora in the production that is currently being presented at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick (with direction by Betsy Aidem), also proves up to the task of embodying Nora’s complexities; she’s joined in the four-person cast by Andrew Garman, as Nora’s ex, Torvald; Ann McDonough as Anne Marie, who served as both Nora’s nanny and the nanny of the three children she abandoned; and Lily Santiago as Emmy, who was a child when Nora left, and is now in her early 20s.
These are the only characters of the play; “A Doll’s House” itself was more densely populated. This play also has only one act, as opposed to its predecessor’s three, and its plot is far simpler. The set itself (designed by Deb O) is drab and desolate — a room in a house so empty it gives the impression that Torvald has just moved in, even though we know he’s been there for many years. The piano is still there, but alas, it’s untuned.
The message is clear: Nora’s departure at the end of “A Doll’s House” was a devastating act, and the void has not been filled. It almost feels as if Torvald — who has not remarried, we learn — is still in mourning. All the colors in the set, and even the costumes (by Olivera Gajic), are muted — except, pointedly, for Nora’s brashly bright red dress.
After leaving the family, you see, Nora — though also not remarried — has flourished, working as a seamstress at first, and then becoming a successful writer of feminist novels (drawing from her own experiences), under a pseudonym.
What has brought her back? She has learned that Torvald never filed the divorce papers, and therefore they are still, technically, married. This poses a big problem for her, for reasons that are too complicated to explain here, and so she has come back to beseech Torvald — forever unwilling to let the past go — to make the end of their marriage official. As in Ibsen’s play, Hnath delves into some of the legal iniquities facing women in Norwegian society in Ibsen’s time.
In the course of the play, Nora has a one-on-one conversation with Emmy, who seems to have become a smart, self-assured young woman — a mirror of the young Nora — without Nora’s help. Nora also gets deep into conversation with Anne Marie, who punctures some of her pretensions. McDonough has a nice, earthy presence in this role, and Hnath has her curse, in a way you wouldn’t expect a woman of her time to do; it comes as a bit of a shock.
But everything builds to the showdown with Torvald, which, as expected, ends up being quite intense — and, as not expected, has a great absurd twist at its climax.
As lofty as its ambitions are, “A Doll’s House, Part 2” still suffers from the law of diminishing returns that applies to virtually all sequels — whether theatrical, literary or cinematic. In “A Doll’s House,” Nora turns her life, and the life of her family, upside down. In “Part 2,” she and Torvald, long past the point of possible reconciliation, are once again in conflict, but really, it’s just a protracted squabble. The stakes simply aren’t as high, and the references to Ibsen’s play, clever as they are, also remind us that this play only exists as a reflection of something else.
“A Doll’s House” will be presented at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through Dec. 23; visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.