In the most famous exit in the history of modern drama, Nora Helmer walks out on her husband Torvald and their three children in Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.”
“I must stand on my own two feet if I am to find out the truth about myself and about life,” she tells her shocked husband.
For a story set in 1879 Norway, the play has shown remarkable resilience. It continues to be produced on stages all over the world; every decade sees the release of another film version. But it’s a play that cries out for a sequel. Whether you applaud or decry her behavior, you can’t help wondering what happened to Nora after she slammed the door on domestic life.
The engrossing answer, “A Doll’s House, Part 2” is on stage through Nov. 2 at Hudson Stage Co. in Armonk.
Playwright Lucas Hnath revisits the Helmer household 15 years after Nora’s departure. Ann-Marie, the nanny who raised Nora and her children, answers a loud knock at the door and is stunned to find the formerly put-upon mistress of the house brimming with self-confidence and beautifully dressed in expensive clothes. A successful writer of feminist fiction, Nora has not come, as Ann-Marie hopes, to reconcile with Torvald, but rather to obtain a divorce decree. She has been living as a single woman, taking lovers and writing under an assumed name. She only recently discovered that her husband never filed for divorce, which could threaten her reputation and livelihood.
Initially paralyzed by Nora’s reappearance in his life, Torvald becomes defiant when she tries to persuade him to give her a divorce. As she weighs her options, Nora is forced to confront the effects of her desertion on the people she left behind. Torvald has become withdrawn and salvaged his ego by claiming his wife is dead. Ann-Marie has had to care for him in addition to the children. Nora’s grown daughter Emmy horrifies her by speaking of her intention to marry a banker in Torvald’s office and settle down to the kind of life that Nora is so proud of having rejected.
Torvald asks if staying in the marriage and working out problems wouldn’t have been a more courageous choice than walking away. He longs for a connection but Nora is having none of it. There’s no room in her life of radical independence for emotional closeness or — heaven forbid — dependence on other people.
If Ibsen’s play dramatized the plight of women in a patriarchal society, Hnath’s sequel raises interesting questions about marriage and commitment in an age obsessed with self-fulfillment. Through the limited choices of the servant Ann Marie he explores class issues that still resonate today.
As in the 2017 Broadway production, the set in the intimate Whippoorwill Theater is spare. Costumes by David Toser ground the play in the 19th century even though the language is strictly contemporary.
Director Margarett Perry kept a lively pace and all four actors were excellent. Denise Bessette commanded the stage as Nora, quickly recovering her poise when the other characters challenged her. Mary Stout was affecting and humorous as the nanny torn in her loyalties, wavering between resentment and sympathy. Kurt Rhoads as Torvald was a tower of repressed feelings that emerged as pride, frustration, anger and vulnerability. Rachel Kent’s brisk Emmy more than matched her mother’s steely determination and self-assurance.
Hudson Stage is a Westchester gem, proving that you don’t need to venture far from home or pay steep prices to see provocative professional theater. Two productions a year and occasional staged readings are presented in the North Castle Library’s Whippoorwill Theater, 19 Whippoorwill Road East, Armonk.
For tickets starting at $35 go to HudsonStage.com or call 271-2811.