Review: Lucas Hnath’s sequel to ‘A Doll’s House’ brings Nora home

Zuleyma Guevara and Nikhaar Kishnani in “A Doll’s House, Part 2” | Photo by Jonathan Roberts

It’s been 15 years since Nora Helmer left her empty marriage to Torvald and her three young children with a slam of the front door. She left penniless and lived a life of abject impoverished solitude until she made her fame — under a pseudonym, of course — as a writer of women’s (racy?) novels. She’s taken lovers along the way and has a wardrobe of extravagant finery.

But now she’s back, and she’s back with demands. Not to see her children or be part of their lives again. She wants the divorce Torvald once promised her but never filed. He declared her dead 15 years ago rather than admit that his wife left her family.

Will he give her the divorce she needs to keep her fortune? It’s a battle of will, a battle of wits!

It’s not the plotline of a daytime soap (do those still exist?). It’s the plot to Lucas Hnath’s sequel to Ibsen’s 1897 play “A Doll’s House” — “A Doll’s House, Part 2” — currently at Actors Theatre of Louisville, which mixes modern with period in every aspect of the production.

Zuleyma Guevara and Socorro Santiago | Photo by Jonathan Roberts

The heightened drama of the new play echoes the heightened drama of the last beat of Ibsen’s work — the scandal of a housewife abandoning her family in the late 1800s.

The lights come up to incessant knocking on the centerstage massive lavender door that stretches to the ceiling and, like the whole grand entryway, is rendered at a slight tilt. It’s the same door Nora (the powerful Zuleyma Guevara) slammed 15 years ago.

Reid Thompson’s scenic design is breathtaking. Never has the Victor Jory Theatre seemed so big. There are shadows on the looming walls where Nora’s beloved possessions once hung — a mirror, a cuckoo clock, a shelf (“Of course we got rid of all your things when you left.”).

The palette throughout the play is soft gold and purple. Only two purple satin-backed chairs and a white bench adorn the stage. The effect is stunning — you’re trying to appreciate the period grandeur of the setting but are interrupted constantly by the aggressive knocking on the door.

The knocking lasts probably a little more than a minute, but it feels much longer before aged maid and nanny Anna Marie (Socorro Santiago) hobbles her way to the door. Ibsen’s Nora would never have knocked like that.

Nora is swathed in a huge grey coat that covers a royal purple period gown. Her hat, like her self, is over-adorned in accessories, as though she wants to convey her successful independence through excess.

The first jolt of modernity is when she opens her mouth. She, and all the characters, speak in modern American vernacular, complete with cuss words, including several well-placed f-yous and rude hand gestures.

Or perhaps the first jolt of modernity is when Nora steps into the room. This is Nora in the late 1800s, and Guevara is a person of color. The multi-cultural casting feels right in this production, directed by Pirronne Yousefzadeh (based on past productions of the play, it doesn’t look like Hnath called for this detail in his script — casts have been overwhelmingly white).

Zuleyma Guevara and Kim Sullivan | Photo by Jonathan Roberts

As Nora tells the story of the past 15 years of her life, it’s clear she’s become a woman modern audiences would recognize as “modern.” Her independence has brought her success and wealth. She writes to, in her mind at least, empower women. She courts controversy. She takes lovers when she wants them.

But there’s a lot to unpack about Nora’s “modernity,” and the play doesn’t let audiences come to their own conclusions about her easily. (My theater companion said he’s never liked a play he didn’t understand this much. We debated throughout dinner afterward and concluded that we really don’t know what to think about Nora.)

Anne Marie is the “old kind” of womanhood, a woman who lived her life in labor, abandoned her child to raise Nora’s, has no possessions and a home only by the whim of her employer. She’s the opposite of a liberated woman.

Santiago embodies the woman as run-down but feisty. She’s loyal but quick with a lash of her tongue (or with a middle finger behind your back). Santiago impressively conveys the physical and emotional pain of being an elderly woman who has worked hard all her life for someone else with little thanks. She makes you hurt.

Actors newcomer Nikhaar Kishnani | Photo by Jonathan Roberts

Likewise, Kim Sullivan (returning to Actors after a 35-year absence) also imbued his Torvald with the weariness of not only old age, but heartbreak, loneliness and regret. His children have grown and left the house, so it’s just him and Anna Marie in this space that still has ghost shadows of Nora’s possessions on the wall.

The delight of the show was the acting by Actors newcomer (all the women were newcomers) Nikhaar Kishnani as Nora and Torvald’s daughter Emmy — passionate, expressive, full of fire and manipulative in a way that’s typical of young adults/teens.

Overall, the acting is good-to-amazing, the script — while a bit monologue-heavy as many of Hnath’s plays are — is interesting and the play was well-cast. The set is one of the stars of the show, but it seems underutilized.

The point of the play beyond a literary exercise remains unclear to me. I feel like we were being pulled to join #TeamNora, but if anything, I was #TeamEmmy or, more likely, #TeamNoneOfThem.

“A Doll’s House, Part 2” continues at Actors Theatre through Nov. 4. Tickets start at $25.