By Dale King
The 20th century saw major feminist movements such as the suffragettes’ quest for the right to vote in the early 1900s and the women’s liberation drive of the 1960s.
The 21st century is following in its stead, dealing with complex matters such as the #MeToo movement, LGBTQ representation and questions of gender identity explored in a “woke” culture.
Little did Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen realize how the slamming of a door by an angry woman repulsed by her subservient, 19th-century, housewifely existence in his 1879 play A Doll’s House would continue to echo down the years, even through a 2017 sequel by an American playwright contending with the same kinds of questions about the place of women in society.
Now playing through June 27 at the Delray Beach Playhouse, the often serious, somewhat whimsical, always intriguing A Doll’s House, Part II, written by Orlando-raised writer Lucas Hnath, literally picks up where Ibsen left off — albeit 15 years later.
The show at the Delray Playhouse stars an exceptional four-person cast that’s developed into a respectable working unit, easily handling a complex script with considerable dialogue, but little action.
The scenery is simple — a paneled wall with various faded spots showing places where paintings, a mirror and a cuckoo clock once hung.
The barely four-year-old play received eight 2017 Tony Award nominations after it arrived on Broadway. Laurie Metcalf (Broadway’s original Nora) was the sole winner, taking honors for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role.
Ibsen’s original play, set long before feminism was a buzzword, actually deals in depth with that issue. Nora Helmer, the original play’s heroine, who reappears in Part II, rebels against constraints society forces on women. Playwright George Bernard Shaw considered Nora’s departure so revolutionary that he called it “the door slam heard ‘round the world.”
Part II opens with another opening of that same door — this time, in response to a knock. The nanny, Anne Marie (Diane Gilch), swings wide the door to find Nora (Suzanne Dunn) outside — a decade and a half after she brutishly exited, leaving her family adrift.
It took 15 years, but she’s back. Anne Marie greets her with a “what took you so long?” attitude, expecting to hear that Nora has come back from a failed journey and is looking to re-up with the family.
Not so. After disappearing, Nora became a successful feminist novelist. The reason for her return is simple and singular: To finalize divorce papers with her not-quite-ex hubby, Torvald Helmer (Todd Caster), who — for an unspecified reason — never filed them in the first place.
Nora isn’t back for a reunion. She wants the papers signed — period. She snidely tells Anne Marie that her writings have made “a lot” of money, and she can’t wait to get the chore done so she can return to her “house by the lake.”
In response, Anne Marie exclaims, “Oh, f— it all. I thought you’d be nice.” Hnath’s crisp, often laugh-aloud dialogue contains modern language and profanity, as if connecting past and present to show how little has changed in the arena of women’s rights.
Actually, no one seems excited to see Nora. Daughter Emmy (Sara Ptachik), perhaps overcompensating for maternal abandonment, says she doesn’t even know Nora since she was a child when they last met. She does, however, recall the door slam.
When Torvald arrives, he says to Anne Marie, “Who is your friend?” before recognizing Nora. The woman once empowered to express her feminist fervor by angrily leaving her home now faces her husband as a needy subservient once again.
Despite Torvald’s controlling ways, Nora knows how to play him like a fiddle, and he responds in kind. There is no unity in their reunion, though, so their final blowout falls to physical confrontation. Realization ultimately trumps altercation, but the finale still leaves more questions than it answers.
Seasoned artistic director Randolph DelLago helms the final show of the 2020-21 season, assembling a memorable cast in a drama/comedy of social mores, past and present.
As Nora, Dunn believes she can have it all, but when she tries to get it, she’s continually slapped back and put down by society for having the nerve to be ambitious. Without these trappings, she’s OK, as she says near the play’s end: “Once I could hear my voice, I could think for myself.”
Having already appeared in Delray Playhouse’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Caster is ready to deal with Nora. The characters handle their roles with tenacity and frankness, though they do back off for an unexpectedly charming few minutes.
Ptachik, weaned on musical theater, has a talent for turning her 10 to 15 minutes of stage time into a scene-commanding performance as she schools Nora on just who she is and what she wants — marriage and respectability — the things her mother rejected.
Gilch brings qualities of loyalty and strength to her nanny role. Her sure hand with the character, along with impressive timing, creates a person who knows and feels far more than she lets on, and whose servitude has both worn her down and enriched her.
A Doll’s House, Part II is playing through June 27 at the Delray Beach Playhouse, 950 NW 9th St. (Lake Shore Drive), Delray Beach. Tickets may be bought online at www.delraybeachplayhouse.com or by calling 561-272-1281.