In life, people come. People go.
What can make their stories more interesting is if they return — especially many years later after achieving success.
A few momentous returns marked Friday’s opening performance of playwright Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2” in Actors Theatre of Louisville’s intimate Victor Jory Theatre.
Hnath sets off his sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 “A Doll’s House,” with the one-time matriarch of the household, Nora Helmer, returning 15 years after she left, dramatically slamming the door to the luxurious family home.
In 2012, Hnath’s first work at Actors Theatre (“Death Tax”) played on this very stage during the Humana Festival of New American Plays, and critics took notice. Other plays followed, including the 2014 festival play “The Christians.” Now, “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” which received a 2017 Tony Award nomination for Best Play, is the most produced play across the country this year, according to American Theatre Magazine.
In Ibsen’s renowned play, Nora sought a life as a free woman outside of the stifling world of marriage and far from the expectations that her husband, Torvald, held over her — especially after the revelation of secrets that threatened their bourgeois status.
Secrets still lurk more than a decade later in Hnath’s story after Nora (Zuleyma Guevara) knocks and arrives festooned in fashionable clothing topped with a dramatic hat. She has done well for herself.
But the sparely decorated house is no longer so luxurious; there are shadows where pictures once hung and furniture stood long ago.
Questions endure. But answers don’t surface immediately when the family’s dutiful servant, Anne Marie (Socorro Santiago), answers the door in the first scene. Santiago’s voice has a naïve, high-pitched quality, but in her advanced age, she stoops slightly and limps. She raised Nora, helped her years ago, and stayed on with Torvald (Kim Sullivan) to help him raise his and Nora’s three children.
Hnath has created a Nora who is still very much concerned with the plight of women — but when she opens her mouth her words feels more self-serving. Guevara’s steely Nora holds a steady intensity, as she parses her words. She works to hold her emotions in check as she tries to provoke others — mostly to get a legal divorce from Tovald. He never filed for one all those years ago.
Nora believes she sees her world very clearly, and that others should see it that way as well. She knows her view and her class, but fails to see that of others. Anne Marie, with her long and labor-intense life, has a more clear-eyed view made evident when she states, “The world is a hard place.”
Those and other heartfelt disclosures dispel any illusions that Nora’s return is any kind of a homecoming. Her interactions with Anne Marie and Torvald often edge into a comeuppance.
Director Pirronne Yousefzadeh, who returns after directing the theater’s professional training company in past Humana Festivals, heightens the lure by making this sparse set into kind of emotional boxing ring where duos — Nora vs. Anne Marie; Nora vs. Torval; Nora vs. Emmy (her daughter, portrayed by Nikhaar Kishnani) — tussle using their own histories, aspirations and fears. The actors stand at a distance for periods of time, circle, move, circle. Here, nearness strives for diplomatic connection, not violence. And while that nearness between characters here doesn’t come easy, it can eventually arrive.
Hnath’s work has often incorporated this struggle to connect via different kinds of fragmented stories and histories among family and community members, involving caretakers and lost sheep.
The language here is fraught, with Hnath bestowing his characters with contemporary language including expletives. Yousefzadeh and the cast handle it smoothly, given the history they share and the various losses they perceive.
When cast members get into the ring, as it were, they begin to show the multifaceted aspects of their characters. Santiago’s Anne Marie shows the fortitude that has helped her survive, wrapped beneath the seemingly soft and cheery face she shows to the world.
Guevara’s Nora justifies her past actions standing up straight in her finery, a measure of her success, and always looks as though she is trying not to glance behind her. Her shoulders appear like they just might cave in at any point when the mention of the children comes up. When she meets Emmy, her body shows a woman vacillating between someone standing in the present and looking to the future while forcing herself not to look back on memories and contemplate regrets.
Kishnani’s assured and poised Emmy doesn’t remember Nora, who left when she was a baby. Emmy arrives with her innocent voice and wide eyes before revealing an inquisitive and slightly sly quality. This has Nora darting around the room with revelations as Emmy lobs responses to Nora’s inquiries.
Sullivan is a delight from first sight as the taut but tired Torvold, with his darting eyes seemingly suspicious of everything. His bitter Torvold never wants to show an open hand or heart. But Sullivan’s guy has some glint that hints there might be more to him, and makes you want to know his story. When Torvold and Nora face off, Sullivan and Guevara take both characters to a deeper place.
Hnath also peppers the script with questions and opinions about the definitions of marriage, living with another person and making a commitment to one person. One character even finds distress in the idea of “never finding a person who knows you.”
In this old house, these individuals have been hurt when they have conflicts and discover they hold different aspirations and expectations about life and each other. At their core, they crave love and respect as well as to be seen and heard.
The production of “A Doll’s House, Part 2” at Actors Theatre of Louisville continues through Nov. 4 in the Victor Jory Theatre at Actors Theatre of Louisville, 316 W. Main St. Tickets are $30.74 to $81.62. For more information, call (502) 584-1205 or visit actorstheatre.org.
Elizabeth Kramer is on Twitter @arts_bureau and on Facebook at Elizabeth Kramer – Arts Writer.