Review: At Steppenwolf, A Doll’s House, Part 2, “Law & Order” Version

Ensemble members Sandra Marquez (Nora) and Yasen Peyankov (Torvald). Photo by Michael Brosilow.

To fully understand this witty and nuanced play, one must know that it is a sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s original A Doll’s House, which was written and set at the end of the 1800s. Like the original, it is written by a man (Lucas Hnath), and yet it engages us on the issue of autonomy, freedom and equality for women–while not entirely hitting the mark and by taking ownership of that at the same time. Director Robin Witt is known for her ability to engage audiences with intense and timely themes. In an interview in 2015 in the Charlotte Observer she said, “I’m always aware of my responsibility as a female director to female actors and playwrights.” Both plays move on the assumption that the only option for a woman to be equal was to walk away from any role that already existed for women at that time. In some ways, this Part 2 is then a play for our times as we consider how much has changed and how much hasn’t in the ensuing hundred-plus years. But in another way, the play is strangely and perhaps consciously outmoded as the discourse on feminism has since gone much deeper even if progress has only crept forward.

Just four characters dominate the stage, which is laid out a bit like a courtroom in a big rectangle with chairs lining the walls. Even more courtroom-like was the presence of audience members on the stage just outside of the scene sitting in two rows of chairs (on all three sides), essentially making the room a theater in the round, but also curiously, making the stage-seated audience and their reactions a part of the show. This court symbolism heavily begged the question of who was on trial and why. 

It begins with Nora (played by Sandra Marquez) and Anne Marie (played by Barbara E. Robertson) being reunited because Nora needs something from her ex-family. They reveal their relationship over a class divide and bonds that are something akin to mother and daughter. Anne Marie is the family servant who virtually raised Nora and had fond feelings for her, but she is also conflicted, as she was the one who was left to raise Nora’s three children when Nora left her husband Torvald 15 years earlier. Issues of class (or the intersectionality between the need for feminism for both women of privilege and working class women) are lightly addressed when Nora tells Anne Marie she too abandoned her child when Anne Marie moved to their home to raise her, and Anne Marie sets her straight that it was not an act of choice but of necessity.

Sandra Marquez (Nora) and Celeste M. Cooper (Emmy). Photo by Michael Brosilow.

We are introduced to each character the first time with a “Law & Order Special Victims Unit” sound effect that also flashes their names dramatically on a video screen above. Although it solidifies the concept of judge and jury, and adds some dimension to an otherwise mostly barren set, this technological twist seems incongruous to the turn of the century era they inhabit as indicated by their costumes. But it is not the only anachronism we will experience with the play. There is also the case of very modern glass water bottles on the table, which eliminates the possibility that the director was looking to just add some meta-modern indicators but only in the audience’s universe. The dialogue is also modern, with up-to-date profanities tossed around to shocking comic effect, especially when they come out of the mouth of the previously forbearing maid Anne Marie as she tells Nora off for leaving her with the entire family to care for.

So, these modern jolts have been added for a reason, perhaps for irony–to remind us that we are 100 years further in time than the characters themselves, and therefore should have some additional context to apply to the topic at hand. But do we?

The main topic reveals itself to us as a question. Was Nora a visionary for walking away from a bad marriage in 1879 or was she a selfish person for leaving behind her family for someone else to raise? Are we, the jury, just as helpless today in deciding whether a woman who acts in her own self-interest as a free person is brave or heartless?

Marquez and Peyankov. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Although the matter might seem cut and dried from the political binary perspective (conservatives would say she was a bad mother and wife, liberals would say she was a pioneer of women’s rights in divorce), the reality is that the case is never quite presented so dryly. Each character, from her husband Torvald (Yasen Peyankov) to her daughter Emmy (Celeste M. Cooper) presents their perspective on being left behind and is rebuffed by Nora, whose determination to share another point of view is fierce. She talks about how she succeeded on her own, how she felt trapped by society’s and her husband’s expectations of her to stay within a certain role, how she was never able to express her true self, how she spent two years in silence until she was able to hear her own inner voice rather than that of a patriarch telling her what she should or shouldn’t do. These explanations themselves are sometimes moving and sometimes hollow when contrasted with the sufferings of her children, for example, and they are firmly countered by the people Nora left behind to win her freedom, who then explain their experiences of abandonment, embarrassment, and loneliness.

Hence, we are ping-ponged along with the hearts and minds of all four characters as the plot’s main dilemma unfolds: Will Nora get the divorce she needs and is long owed by Torvald, in order to continue to live independently? Or will she become a ruined woman dependent on a man once again for survival? Ironically, her survival itself has been secured only because she has capitalized on her misfortunes in life as a woman and has written about them under a male pen name. But in her books, the heroine dies at the end. Nora acknowledges the hypocrisy–noting that she would not have gotten the book published if the heroine didn’t die, but she considers it a worthwhile sacrifice to have even presented the idea of freedom and divorce to the many readers. This shows that Nora is capable of compromise, which is something she had previously not been willing to engage in with her family. And it also perhaps shows the playwright’s motivation in writing such a bristly character–it wasn’t winning equality for all women, but simply presenting the case and its complexities in one particular family at a certain point in time–and isn’t that how change happens, one case at a time?

It is clear that Nora sees herself as a visionary, comically noting that in 25 years it will be standard for all humans to enjoy several partners in life. But it is impossible to see her simply as a feminist icon in the light of her family’s pain, and that doubt is compounded by the fact that she only seems to express concern for them when it will lead to her benefit. Perhaps this narcissistic strain complicates her feminism, but it is difficult not to misconstrue it as an aspect of feminism itself when it is presented alongside her ideas–so that it leaves a tinge of guilt and mistrust in us for her motives. Perhaps it is a shortcoming of living in a patriarchy that left the men who wrote the play unable to envision a female character capable of being free and dignified without being callous or self-centered, but it certainly adds to the drama and the plot of this witty and cerebral play, leaving the bittersweet taste of progress on our palates.

A Doll’s House, Part 2 is playing at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, through March 17. Running time is 90 minutes. Tickets range from $20-$99.

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Kim Campbell

Kim Campbell (they/them) is a freelance editor, podcaster and creative writer who has spent a career focusing on the arts, particularly literature, theater and circus. Former editor of CircusTalk News, they have written about theater and circus for Third Coast Review since its very beginning. Kim is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and the International Network of Circus Arts Magazines. In 2019, they were on the jury of FIRCO in Madrid (Circus Festival Iberoamericano) and in 2021 they were on the voting committee for the International Circus Awards. See their tweets at @kimzyn or follow them on Instagram.