Men versus women, now and then

In the 1960s my girlfriend insisted she could not live with me until we married, which we did. Decades later, when I asked my companion, who is now my wife, to marry me, her indignant response was, “Why in the world should I? We’re already living together.” It took a lot of persuasion to change her mind, for which I am forever glad. The times they are a-changin’.

A new play in Albuquerque shows a wider sweep of change in the history of marital relations. “A Doll’s House, Part 2” updates perhaps the greatest 19th-century feminist classic with 21st-century language and mores.

“A Doll’s House, Part 2” is a much praised drama (including nomination for a Tony as best play of 2017) by Lucas Hnath that ran on Broadway last year and is now at the Cell Theater in Albuquerque, where the professional Fusion company is staging a wildly successful production.

The play is a sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s 19th-century “A Doll’s House,” about a submissive young woman who revolts against the constraints of a patronizing husband, life in a home that is like a doll’s house and a society governed by Norway’s rigid, sexist victorian laws.

While the sequel’s action occurs only 15 years after the conclusion of Ibsen’s drama, it could as well be generations later due to the dramatic changes in the lives of the key characters—the husband Tovald Helmer and his wife Nora.

Ibsen’s sympathies were entirely with Nora and her classic act of rebellion, which culminates with her walking out of their home and slamming the door behind her—an action that has been described as the loudest slam in theatrical history.

The sequel begins with thunderous knocking on the same door that Nora slammed 15 years earlier. It ends with Nora walking again out that door. But this time her husband quietly opens the door for her and softly shuts it behind her. There is no slam. That moment tells you a lot about this fine play.

Jacqueline Reid and Gregory Wagrowski in “A Doll’s House, Part 2”

The performances are among the best I’ve seen in Albuquerque, perhaps even the best. The four-person cast—veterans Jacqueline Reid, Laurie Thomas and Gregory Wagrowski and newcomer Katie Farmin—convinces you of their reality as people who struggle with—and remarkably, cope with—the profound conflicts they face. They have not only to confront each other, but also a society that is in some ways as problematical in the decade of #MeToo as in the century of Queen Victoria.

While the play contains no direct allusions to the current time, the parallels are unavoidable. This is a story of Nora (Reid) who has succeeded in emerging from male dominance to create her own independent social, sexual and professional life, and who must now deal with the consequences, emotional and legal.

But at the same time it is also the story of her husband Tovald (Wagrowski), who must learn to let go, and how he is finally able to do so. In Ibsen’s play, little sympathy is wasted on the pompous, condescending and ultimately hypocritical husband; in the sequel he emerges as a fine human being, calm, patient, dignified and, most of all, tortured. The transformation is stunning.

The Broadway set was big and complex, but the Fusion company and Director Gil Lazier have efficiency relocated the story to a small, bare room on the tiny stage of the Cell Theater. Lazier, a Californian who has worked with the Fusion on other productions, was in the audience the day I attended.

When Ibsen wrote his play, Europe still had “a culture that women who leave the family will punished,” in Nora’s words. Allowing Nora to walk out unscathed caused Ibsen so much grief that for a German performance he wrote an alternative ending in which Nora changes her mind and agrees to stay with her family—contradicting the entire text and destroying the play’s meaning. Ibsen soon regretted the change and restored the original.

Nora and her aged former nanny Ann Marie (Thomas) debate the role of marriage, with Ann Marie upholding the traditional role of women in the home while Nora insists, “Marriage makes people change for the worse.” It is, she says, “captivity…a process of self-torture.”

I only noticed one false note in the Fusion production. At the beginning of the play, Nora enters. She is supremely confident, even overbearing, and elegantly and dramatically dressed In a red costume. Ann Marie comments to Nora, “You’ve gotten a little fatter.” Nora turns away with a look of shock and disapproval. But in the 19th century telling a woman she had gained weight was a compliment, not an insult.

The sequel turns some traditional Victorian motifs on their heads. In this case it is the husband who stays home, remains single and raises the kids. It is the wife who walks out of the home into a successful career as a popular and wealthy writer, who has affairs and lives a sophisticated life as a woman of the world.

Unlike the original Ibsen play, in the sequel I found my sympathies lying more with the husband than the wife. At one point Nora attacks her persistently unruffled husband, “It really bugs me you never got angry….You’re constipated.” But since when is anger a virtue? Later Nora muses regretfully, “I can’t be kind to him.”

The self-control of Torvald gradually gives way to the almost tragic trauma of a man tightly holding onto his angst because if he lets go he would collapse. That Wagrowski seemingly effortlessly portrays these two levels of consciousness is evidence of both great acting and skillful direction.

No less skillful is Thomas, whom I’ve seen before in many a youthful and energetic role. Here she transposes herself into an old, humbled and weakened woman servant who is still capable of explosive anger to protect the family she loves and saves. “There’s the door. I know you know how to use it,” she explodes. The suppressed bitterness can no longer be contained.

Reid shines in a role that seems to have been written for her, perhaps the capstone of a long and varied career. Her Nora is a woman who, after years of marriage, reached for what she wanted and attained it. She is self-willed, even selfish, manipulative and controlling. But as in the case of the other characters, there is another layer beneath the hard surface, of pain and uncertainty and ambivalence.

The role of the daughter Emmy (Farmin) is one that does not appear at all in the original Ibsen play. The young woman is on the verge of getting married. Farmin shows us an intriguing combination of hard and soft, cold and warm. While she is desperately seeking the cozy comfort of love she is as willing as her mother to manipulate others to ward off threats to her happiness.

I highly recommend this play, which the New York Times called “a triumph of ambivalent feminist comedy.” Above all, it will make you think again about how far we’ve come—and how far we haven’t come—in rationalizing the roles of men and women. Fifteen years after walking out of one prison, Nora says, “I’m already in a kind of prison.” The distinct difference is that she chose this latter prison, it wasn’t forced upon her by her society.

I want to emphasize that before seeing it, reading the Ibsen drama is essential. Nearly all of the audience on the day I saw the play had done so. (Producer Dennis Gromelski asked them to raise their hands if they had.)

“A Doll’s House, Part 2” continues  until Sept. 30, with performances at the Cell Theater, 700 1st ST. NW in Albuquerque; the James A. Little Theater, 1060 Cerrillos Rd. in Santa Fe; and the KiMo Theater, 423, Central Ave. SW in Albuquerque. The Sept. 30  performance at the KiMo will be pay what you wish. For reservations and more information go to Fusion.org or call 505-766-9412.