Theater review: Steppenwolf revisits Ibsen drama for thoughtful sequel 'A Doll's House, Part 2'

 
 
Updated 2/14/2019 6:38 AM
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  • Nora (Sandra Marquez) asks for a divorce from her husband, Torvald (Yasen Peyankov), in Lucas Hnath's "A Doll's House, Part 2" at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.

    Nora (Sandra Marquez) asks for a divorce from her husband, Torvald (Yasen Peyankov), in Lucas Hnath's "A Doll's House, Part 2" at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow/Steppenwolf Theatre

  • The servant Anne Marie (Barbara E. Robertson) is conflicted about the return of Nora (Sandra Marquez) 15 years later in Lucas Hnath's "A Doll's House, Part 2" at Steppenwolf Theatre.

    The servant Anne Marie (Barbara E. Robertson) is conflicted about the return of Nora (Sandra Marquez) 15 years later in Lucas Hnath's "A Doll's House, Part 2" at Steppenwolf Theatre. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow/Steppenwolf Theatre

"A Doll's House, Part 2" -- ★ ★ ★

When Norwegian housewife Nora Helmer left her husband and children at the end of Henrik Ibsen's 1879 play "A Doll's House," the shocking conclusion and subsequent societal outrage became known as "The door slam heard around the world."

And those reverberations are still being felt according to Lucas Hnath in his 2017 Broadway comedy "A Doll's House, Part 2," now making a solid and enjoyable Chicago debut at Steppenwolf Theatre.

It takes a lot of hubris to write a sequel to a towering piece of Western literature. A 1982 Broadway musical sequel called "A Doll's Life," for example, was a huge flop.

But Hnath, who likes to dramatize wide-ranging societal arguments in plays such as "The Christians" and "Hillary and Clinton," applies a compelling contemporary spin as he revisits Ibsen's controversial characters. "A Doll's House, Part 2" is a stylized hybrid of a period piece and a symbolic modern trial of men and women's relationships.

Nora (Sandra Marquez) returns 15 years later to the home she once abandoned in Lucas Hnath's "A Doll's House, Part 2" at Steppenwolf Theatre.
Nora (Sandra Marquez) returns 15 years later to the home she once abandoned in Lucas Hnath's "A Doll's House, Part 2" at Steppenwolf Theatre. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow/Steppenwolf Theatre

Hnath posits that Nora (Sandra Marquez), now a popular novelist writing under a pseudonym, returns to her family 15 years later to seek an official divorce. Without it, she risks being exposed and imprisoned based upon Scandinavian laws of the time.

Understandably, not everyone is happy to see the confident, defiant Nora return. Nora's former nanny Anne Marie (Barbara E. Robertson) resents that she was pushed to raise Nora's children, while husband Torvald (Yasen Peyankov) is in an utter state of shock.

Torvald (Yasen Peyankov) is confronted with the return of his wife, Nora, in Lucas Hnath's "A Doll's House, Part 2" at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre.
Torvald (Yasen Peyankov) is confronted with the return of his wife, Nora, in Lucas Hnath's "A Doll's House, Part 2" at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow/Steppenwolf Theatre

Daughter Emmy (Celeste M. Cooper) is particularly guarded, especially when her desire to marry is instantly pooh-poohed by Nora. There's a reckoning to be had from all sides, especially when Nora defends herself against accusations of being entitled and selfish.

Thankfully, Hnath injects loads of sarcastic humor into what could have been an uncomfortable drama of angry recriminations. And like the current Oscar-nominated film "The Favourite," "A Doll's House, Part 2" eschews period dialogue, especially when choice profanities erupt.

Anne Marie (Barbara E. Robertson) is conflicted about the return of Nora in Lucas Hnath's "A Doll's House, Part 2" at Steppenwolf.
Anne Marie (Barbara E. Robertson) is conflicted about the return of Nora in Lucas Hnath's "A Doll's House, Part 2" at Steppenwolf. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow/Steppenwolf Theatre

Marquez's self-confidence as a no-nonsense Nora is refreshing. Meanwhile, Peyankov, Robertson and Cooper are marvelous with their characters' emotions that veer from bewilderment to unleashed rage.

To telegraph the needed mix of history and modernity in "A Doll's House, Part 2," director Robin Witt and her design team austerely present a minimalist set of chairs suggesting a group-therapy session, complete with a box of tissues and bottled water at hand. Set designer Courtney O'Neill also boxes in the playing area with rows of onstage seating, allowing audience members to not only watch the actors, but some of their peers' reactions to the drama.

Emmy (Celeste M. Cooper) contemplates whether to help Nora, the mother who abandoned her as a child, in Lucas Hnath's "A Doll's House, Part 2," now playing at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre.
Emmy (Celeste M. Cooper) contemplates whether to help Nora, the mother who abandoned her as a child, in Lucas Hnath's "A Doll's House, Part 2," now playing at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow/Steppenwolf Theatre

Where history holds onto the characters is in their late Victorian-era costumes, stylishly designed by Izumi Inaba. From Nora's first entrance, her plush red velvet outfit with fancy beading announces that this is a woman of wealth and style, while the other characters' muted color palate shows how they lead much more conventional lives.

But perhaps the most prominent symbolic design feature of Steppenwolf's "A Doll's House, Part 2" is the monolithic yellow door center stage. It towers like an enormous road caution sign warning audiences about the conflicted characters who continue to cause a global commotion.

• • •

Location: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650 or steppenwolf.org

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday (2 p.m. Wednesday matinees begin Feb. 27), 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (Sunday evening shows end March 2); through March 17

Running time: About 90 minutes with no intermission

Tickets: $20-$99

Parking: Pay garages, limited metered parking

Rating: Some adult language and themes

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