“A Doll’s House, Part 2” now playing at Asolo Repertory Theatre started simply with an unopened door signifying the threshold where we last saw housewife Nora Helmer in the classic Ibsen original. As the lights came up the infamous doorway itself was met with thundering applause from an audience that has clearly been hungering to learn what became of Nora, who, in 1879, defied convention by departing through that door leaving behind her husband and children.
Lucas Hnath has cleverly written a companion piece to “A Doll’s House” that imagines Nora as a revolutionary feminist author encouraging women to throw off the shackles of marriage to achieve equity and freedom. In a tour-de-force performance, among the finest ever on the Asolo stage, Kate Hampton brought insurgent energy and fire to her role as Nora. The exposition about the fifteen years since Nora’s departure from the Helmer home is neatly explained through a crackling dialogue with Anne-Marie, the nanny who raised Nora and her children, played to perfection by the beloved matriarch of the Asolo stage Peggy Roeder. Roeder has a Streepian quality of morphing into a mind-numbing number of wide ranging roles.
Anne-Marie is both thrilled to see her charge acquitted so nicely since her departure and also devastated that she seems not to have needed any of them at all. Anne-Marie proclaims she is “pissed” that Nora seeks only divorce papers with no regard for the damage she has caused the family nor any regret for the disappointment the nanny feels that the visit was not a long-awaited happy reunion after all.
Things really get moving when Hampton’s real-life husband Asolo Associate Artist David Breitbarth as Torvald Helmer thrusts open the door to find his wife whom he no longer recognizes. After a lengthy retreat to the bathroom, the favorite escape room of a modern husband, Nora finds the right words to explain why she needs Torvald to file for divorce. He refuses, much to her surprise and consternation.
This 90-minute excursion through the role of marriage in modern society is positively brilliant. We even get to experience a mother-daughter duel on whether one can find fulfillment tethered to another that sounds like an exploration of the first and second waves of feminism. Must women be free of men entirely to stake their claim in the world or is equity achieved only staying and building a life with the opposite sex through compromise? Olivia Osol gives a breezy yet complex performance, as Nora’s daughter Emmy; and this self-proclaimed old soul holds her own with her incredibly persuasive mother.
Peter Amster, Asolo Associate Artist and director of this masterpiece, sat next to me during the performance, grinning, laughing, and in the end, thrilled with the audience’s triumphant response to the production. As I was sorting through my favorite Asolo plays in my head, “You Can’t Take it With You,” “Born Yesterday” and now, in the #1 slot, “A Doll’s House, Part 2” I found out in the program that they were each directed by Amster, along with my favorite musical “1776.” What a marvelous coup that both he and his partner, the great Tony-winning director Frank Galati, who frequently directs productions at the Asolo, have settled in Sarasota!
This month, as women take center stage in the House of Representatives, it is an apt time to pay tribute to the women who brought the revolution into their homes – many of whom were surely inspired by the great Nora Helmer. Nora’s most memorable line in the original – “something glorious is going to happen” has truly come to pass in this splendid sequel.