Tasha Lawrence

Look Who's Back

Review of A Doll’s House, Part 2, TheaterWorks

Lucas Hnath’s popular revisiting of one of Henrik Ibsen’s best-known plays—A Doll’s House—receives two productions in Connecticut this season. First up, it’s at TheaterWorks, directed by Jenn Thompson, through February 24, and as the season closer at Long Wharf in May (the two productions are not related).

Alexander Hodge’s set for A Doll’s House, Part 2, at TheaterWorks (photos courtesy of TheaterWorks)

Alexander Hodge’s set for A Doll’s House, Part 2, at TheaterWorks (photos courtesy of TheaterWorks)

On the intimate stage at TheaterWorks, on a set by Alexander Hodge that combines Ibsen-era furnishings with a modernist design of neon frames, a series of encounters that mark the return of the former Mrs. Nora Helmer (Tasha Lawrence) to the home she walked out of—so defiantly, memorably, and, one thought, irrevocably—are front and center. The force of the knock upon the door that opens the play relies on our grasp of how final that very door’s slam, back in the 1870s, had been. What follows brings to light all that was never said between the Helmers before, and much that serves to fill in the blanks of what has happened since Nora’s last appearance in the house.

The knock is answered by the housemaid Anne Marie (Amelia White), shocked and surprised to see her old mistress, and the way the two navigate the great gaps in what they know of each other gets us off to a vivid start. Nora, who is dressed expensively in Alejo Vietti’s period costume, has much to pride herself on. She is a success—an author of novels for a dedicated female readership. When she treats Anne Marie to a quick précis of how her books attempt to blow the lid off the inequities of marriage, we’re glad of the housemaid’s subtly caustic responses. Nora has become rather pedantic, and it’s up to Anne Marie to express our lack of amazement in her views. White turns in a finely modulated performance: as the first character to use the profanity so automatic in our day, she deftly takes up a contemporary view that feels earned—and armed against Nora’s rhetoric.

Nora (Tasha Lawrence), Anne Marie (Ameila White)

Nora (Tasha Lawrence), Anne Marie (Ameila White)

The question that would nag at an audience of Ibsen’s day (and ours)—what of the children?—shows up almost automatically as we listen to Nora justify her moves and her total remove from the lives of her two sons and a daughter, an infant when Nora left. Nora doesn’t want to make their acquaintance and wouldn’t be paying this visit at all but for a major complication. Though freed of the tasks of motherhood and the duties of a wife, Nora has recently found out to her dismay that she is still legally married to Torvald. This makes her guilty of fraud, to say nothing of being liable to charges of moral turpitude, for having conducted herself as a single woman all these years. When Anne Marie rebukes Nora for the fact that it fell to her to be the caregiver to her absent mistress’s children, we glimpse the class element in Nora’s privilege, a factor that doesn’t always surface in more celebratory receptions of Nora’s act of abandonment.

The tension between the satisfactions of Nora’s rebellious act, in the original, and her status as a matter-of-fact business woman trying to get on with her career, in the sequel, lands as a look askance at how far she still has not gotten. That aspect of Hnath’s script plays believably as sequel, as Torvald (Sam Gregory), when we meet him, is as completely self-absorbed as ever. Gregory gets in a few nicely deadpan non-reactions to the new Nora, and, by the end, there is a grudging kind of rapport. That’s the note that resonates longest after the play ends; like a fulfillment of how children might wish their separated parents would find closure.

Emmy (Kira Player), Nora (Tasha Lawrence)

Emmy (Kira Player), Nora (Tasha Lawrence)

Which brings us to the Helmer’s child, Emmy, featured in the play, in Kira Player’s strong performance, as a very self-possessed and decisive young woman, much more so, we should see, than Nora was at her age. And yet what Emmy is determined to do is marry, as if in contempt of all her mother has learned and achieved. While not quite a battle of wills, there is a sense that the two women are facing off over a vision of what fulfillment means and how to attain it. The subterfuges proposed on how Emmy might aid her mother in getting around her father (Torvald has no interest in giving Nora a divorce) give us more a sense of strategy than of character.

There’s an odd tension between Hnath’s script and the naturalistic style of Thompson’s direction. The script’s rhythms, one senses, could be delivered without so deliberate a sense of a plausible social space somewhere between Ibsen’s time and ours. Any awkwardness in that overlay should be intentional but in the TheaterWorks production significantly abrasive tones rarely surface. Not even Torvald entering with a gushing head wound upsets the even-handed mise en scène.

Nora (Tasha Lawrence), Torvald (Sam Gregory)

Nora (Tasha Lawrence), Torvald (Sam Gregory)

Tasha Lawrence plays Nora as a strong-willed woman with scant sympathy for what others might expect of her. She has struggled to attain her self-possession, so that relinquishing it for a more emotionally needy version of herself is not in the cards. Lawrence sheds tears only once, late in the play, and the brief loss of composure is telling. Nora has realized she’s freer than she had imagined, that—in the manner of a modern woman of the 21st century—she must make her way without the sentimental attachments that still cling to her in the Helmer household. The fact that Torvald, after all this time, is finally able to accept her departure doesn’t arrive as quite the heavy-handed moral it might have. Gregory does fine work as a man who, almost too old to care, can still be amazed by the way a woman—and that his wife—can shake him. Their closing dialogue is the best part of the play, which at times can feel like a scene trying to stretch itself into a full-length play.

An interesting revisiting of familiar territory, Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 is never as striking or illuminating as one might like. It seems at times to run a checklist of possible complications while making sure its heroine’s heroism is never compromised by anything like regret.

 

A Doll’s House, Part 2
By Lucas Hnath
Directed by Jenn Thompson

Set Design: Alexander Hodge; Costume Design: Alejo Vietti; Lighting Design: Philip Rosenberg; Sound Design: Broken Chord; Wig Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Assistant Director: Eric Ort; Associate Set Design: Ann Beyersdorfer; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

Cast: Sam Gregory, Tasha Lawrence, Kira Player, Amelia White

TheaterWorks
January 17-February 24, 2019

Switching Gears in Middle-age: The Roommate opens at Long Wharf

Preview of The Roommate, Long Wharf Theatre

Mike Donahue is a Yale School of Drama graduate back in New Haven to direct Jen Silverman’s The Roommate at Long Wharf Theatre, which begins its run tonight until November 4th. Donahue directed the premiere of the play at the Humana festival in Louisville in 2015. Last season he directed Silverman’s The Moors at Playwrights Realm in New York, and his acclaimed production of Silverman’s Collective Rage: A Play in Five Betties recently closed at MCC, New York. So one could say he is familiar with Silverman’s work and her knack for, as he put it, “setting up expectations, then quietly, delicately subverting them.”

During his time at YSD, Donahue served as the artistic director of the Yale Summer Cabaret for two seasons, a good background for the diverse range of plays Donahue has directed. In style, The Roommate could be called a bit of a bait and switch. Sharon, a middle-aged woman, now divorced and living alone in Iowa, takes in a roommate, Robyn. You’re thinking maybe a female Odd Couple? Or maybe a plot with a mysterious man in it—like the late romance of last season’s Fireflies at Long Wharf? Donahue says the play “seems naturalistic” initially, but tends toward the absurdist style of theater he prefers. One thing that interested Donahue in the play is the fact that it’s about mature women and “not vis à vis men, the characters are not defined by relations to men.”

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The play was reworked for its run last year at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, which Donahue also directed. The goal each time, for the director, is to see the work anew, through the process of collaboration. “So much is about the particular chemistry of the two people playing the two characters, finding different layers of who they are.” In the Long Wharf production Tasha Lawrence plays Robyn, the role she originated at Humana, and Sharon is played by Long Wharf veteran Linda Powell (Our Town, A Doll’s House). For Donahue, the play is “about the power of transformation,” what happens when people not alike find something they can share, to find out “how another person sees you.”

While the play is “very, very funny, it goes to places,” Donahue said, “very sharp, with an edge.” Those viewers who saw Silverman’s The Moors at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2016 will remember the play’s surprising comedy, and its dark and rich irony as it subverted a Gothic tale with its wild sense of comic situations. For Donahue, Silverman’s plays have “real heart, and a strong sense of language that is tonally off-kilter,” a quality that attracts him to her work. She’s “incredibly funny and unbelievably talented” and he finds “thrills in the turns her plays take.”

Revisiting the play at Long Wharf’s mainstage takes the play closer to its earliest incarnation at the Actors’ Theatre in Louisville where it was done completely in the round. Each staging “changes the dynamic,” Donahue says, but each new staging has to find the “kind of spark” that makes theater “transcendent and overwhelming.”

Mike Donahue

Mike Donahue


The Roommate kicks off the Long Wharf 2018-19 season, described as “a comedy about what it takes to re-route your life—and what happens when the wheels come off.”

 

The Roommate
By Jen Silverman
Directed by Mike Donahue

Long Wharf Theatre
October 10-November 4, 2018

For my review of The Roommate at Long Wharf, go to the New Haven Independent, here.

https://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/long_wharf_finds_a_likable_roommate/