Theater Review: Red Herring’s Gripping ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’
Lucas Hnath casts a long shadow as one of our greatest playwrights of ideas. Again and again, he takes people grappling with ideas and arguing about minute details – talking in a room – into captivating, rich drama. Red Herring’s area premiere of his Tony-winning sequel to Ibsen, A Doll’s House, Part 2, directed by Michael Garrett Herring, sums up the unique pleasures of his work for cast and audience.
Ibsen’s A Doll’s House ended with its heroine walking away from her home, family, and life. Hnath’s sequel takes place 15 years later, as Nora (Sonda Staley) returns for the divorce she’s due, upending the lives of her husband, Torvald (Stefan Langer), daughter Emmy (Elizabeth Girvin), and steadfast housekeeper Anne Marie (Catherine Cryan).
Herring understands, as well as Hnath, the stakes of the time and this kind of play. Someone coming through a door feels like a revelation and someone leaving feels as though they’re walking off the edge of the world. The minimal set and evocative costumes by Hannah Middendorf (with Patty Bennett) heighten that drama.
Nora, in Ibsen and Hnath, is one of the greatest characters of modern theater and it has a new, for-the-ages champion here. Staley implies the full life of the years missed, the books Nora wrote, the lovers she took, the business dealings, and the cost of it all. Without ever seeing her outside of this estate, we understand who she is and why. No gesture is wasted in this riveting, marvelous performance.
Even with the towering presence of Staley’s multifaceted Nora, the other characters assert themselves and stand their ground in ways, like life, that make A Doll’s House, Part 2, hold no heroes or villains. The uniformly excellent cast makes the world of the play. Leading the charge there is Langer’s Torvald, symbolizing the rigid, stultifying patriarchy of the times, but drawn as a nuanced individual. He sums up the outside pressures of the struggle to be a good person – and the danger of not knowing how – without falling back into cartoonish mannerisms and easy tropes. I’ve seen very good work from Langer over the years, but I’ve never seen him better.
Girvin’s Emmy stops the world on its axis when she makes her appearance two-thirds of the way through. Tasked with building a character from scratch, without the background Staley, Langer, and Cryan could draw on, she takes that blank slate and soars. Cryan’s devastating, remarkable Anne Marie serves as the play’s fulcrum and secret weapon. Hnath and Herring understand the domino effect of the world on its laborers and Cryan turns that understanding into an incandescent performance the audience can’t take its eyes off.
Red Herring kicked 2020 off with a production of very new work that sets the bar for the year and every other company in town. A taut, gripping performance that sent the audience I saw it with on Thursday out into the night dazzled and deep in conversation.