My favorite interpretation of Nora, the heroine of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879), is Margit Carstensen’s. In Fassbinder’s Nora Helmer, a 1974 TV adaptation of the play, Carstensen dispenses with the idea that Nora was her husband Torvald’s empty-headed plaything. When you compare her performance with other filmed versions starring Jane Fonda, Julie Harris or Claire Bloom, Carstensen nevers simpers or cozies up to Torvald. The production itself is helped along by what was, at the time, a contemporary setting, and by Fassbinder’s direction.
He expresses Nora’s anxiety and restlessness, both as an individual and as a wife, by never allowing the actors to sit still. They address each other furtively, often in profile, walking past each other in a highly stylized living room that’s monochromatic and cluttered with glass walls, screens and mirrors. From the opening shot, Fassbinder’s camera tells us that Nora’s marriage is already over. Carstensen implicitly understands this direction. She projects a woman listening to the death knell of her marriage and relaying the tragedy of its ending to the audience. The question isn’t if Nora’s going to leave Torvald but when.
In more straightforward productions, Nora’s psyche undergoes a dramatic alteration as the plot points unfurl and wake her up to the personal and sociological predicaments she finds herself in. Before the play begins, she had borrowed money, for noble reasons, from someone unscrupulous. As a 19th century woman, Nora couldn’t borrow money from a bank without her husband’s consent. When she leaves her husband at the end of the play, Nora’s leaving him and the confines of the patriarchy at the same time. Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 (through Oct. 21) begins 15 years after Nora walks out the door. In his sequel, the playwright brings her back to life, a revenant lost to her family, to show us what has become of her.
Anne Marie (Nancy E. Carroll) answers a knock at the door and in walks Nora (Mary Beth Fisher) dressed to the nines. Annie Smart’s costume design immediately conveys Nora’s achievements and her sparkling state of mind. Her well-tailored dress is made of a silky, sage green fabric with ornate floral patterns stitched in. Anne Marie acknowledges aloud what it communicates. Despite everyone’s mordant expectations, Nora has not died and she’s succeeded without turning to a husband for monetary or moral support. Anne Marie, who was once Nora’s nanny, also raised Nora’s three children in her absence. She loves Nora, admires her even, but resents her for walking out the door. And it’s a shock to see her, a ghost made real, after all these years.
At first, Hnath’s play lands as a comedy. But then the playwright goes on to hold Nora (and Ibsen) accountable for her behavior. He wants to engineer a family reckoning. Hnath does this by asking and answering the question, “Why has Nora returned?” Nora is proud of the life she’s built for herself. Fisher, whose affect reminded me of the author Lorrie Moore, plays Nora like the clever cat that ate an unlucky canary. She’s returned to the house not to gloat about her success, per se, but she’s not exactly humble either or contrite about abandoning her children. Her posturing soon falls away when her nanny, her husband (John Judd) and her daughter Emmy (Nikki Massoud) all hold her accountable for her actions. The situation is absurd and comic, the emotions the confrontations bring up are not.
This Torvald is a sympathetic figure. Whatever condescending impulses he once indulged in have vanished. He hasn’t remarried and he hasn’t been able to mend himself. Should the patriarchy ever crumble, it will wear Torvald’s bewildered expression. Emmy, though still a young woman, is no wide-eyed innocent. She sees right through her mother’s charms. Hnath’s accomplishment here is not an extension of Ibsen’s proto-feminist stance. Nor does he focus on the economic concerns that brought Carstensen’s emotions to the foreground in Nora Helmer. In A Doll’s House, Part 2, they fade into the background. Money, status and reputation are all part of the plot. But the play’s emotional life springs from a few broken hearts that have never recovered from being abandoned.
A Doll’s House, Part 2, through Oct. 21 at Berkeley Rep, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. $30-$97; 510-647-2949 or berkeleyrep.org