Knock, knock, knock. Knock, knock, knock. The rapping is insistent, impatient.
All right, I'm coming, says nanny Anne Marie (Sally Edmundson), shuffling on creaky knees to the front double doors. She adjusts her somber Whistler's Mother black dress, taking a little longer than she would, for she knows who's waiting outside. She steels herself for the coming onslaught. And, Holy Ibsen, who enters in a silky rustle but her former mistress Nora Helmer (Kim Tobin-Lehl), the protagonist of Henrik Ibsen's epic A Doll's House, theater's first truly contemporary play, the mother of all modern drama.
When last we met flighty Nora, 15 years previous, she lived a respectable upper-bourgeois life, most enviable for a woman in 1879. She had an adoring husband, Torvald (Philip Lehl), three young children, and all the comforts that late 19th-century Oslo could provide a bank manager's wife. She had it all. Except what no one could give her – her freedom – her self.
Torvald had snagged a prize of a wife, but in his desire to possess her, he unwittingly suffocated her. Smug and condescending, never to be contradicted, he loved Nora in his way, just not the way Nora longed for, longed to be. He couldn't rescue her, nor could he undo what he had done to her, making her his little squirrel, his pet. She must leave, and leave she does.
In theater's most famous sound effect, Nora slams the front door. Torvald, bereft and utterly stunned, is left weeping on his knees. She has walked out on her three children, bourgeois convention, wifely duty, propriety, patriarchy, position. She has slammed the door on all of them. As she heads off into unknown territory “to find herself,” she slams the door on the 19th century.
Ibsen loved to slam doors. The Norwegian playwright's impressive work broke all sorts of rules as to what constituted the “well-made” play. He was theater's first rebel, and his themes covered incest, syphilis, inherited sins, rampant egos, and an aching yearning to be free, to find oneself, whatever the means and whatever it took to reach that unattainable goal. His plays were scandals – and roaring successes. After A Doll's House premiere, any well-heeled dinner invitation came with an engraved caveat not to discuss it in the parlor. But the play sold out instantly and was soon produced all over Europe, creating a stir that has never abated.
Playwright Lucas Hnath (The Christians, Red Speedo), a young darling of off-Broadway, asks the question everyone has asked since 1897, What happened to Nora? A Doll's House, Part II, is his most pleasant, satisfying, provocative answer. 4th Wall Theatre Company's production is all that, too.
Yes, this is a sequel, but it's a play of ideas. There's a plot, or the reason why Nora shows up at the house after all these years, but unlike Ibsen's knotty contrivances, Hnath gives us conversations, dialogues between the four characters. This is still about family and who we've left behind and the consequences of those shipwrecks, but the outbursts, except for Torvald and Nora's explosion near the end, are proper and convivial, even if unsaid tempests swirl underneath.
Hnath couches the polemics in contemporary patois as if to say we're not so far away from 1912 as we'd like to think. Everyone has suffered from Nora's exit. Without means, Anne Marie has stayed on to raise Nora's children, ignoring her own child. She won't leave the small comfort she has in the household, even though Nora, now successful from her writing career, offers her independence. Emmy (Judith Igwilo), Nora's grown daughter about to be married, is content to find her own way even if it is within the confines of conventional marriage. She is the mirror image of once-innocent Nora, and while Nora perceives her daughter's futile future, Emmy will not be swayed by her mother's rash notions of independence and modernity. She wants to be possessed. Torvald has remained unmarried, and to preserve his good name has let everyone assume Nora has died. He still has hopes, though, and in a devastatingly affecting final tableaux, after a row as if grafted from an Albee play, they hold hands and sigh like a contented married couple.
The production is fragrant. Ace designer Ryan McGettigan strips the Helmer house of bric-a-brac, leaving a few well-appointed chairs, a wood floor, and flocked wallpaper between the pilasters; costumers Kathyrn Currin and Cherie Acosta overlay this new Ibsen with a stunning Edwardian style; while lighting designer Christina Giannelli, another Houston treasure, bathes the Helmer house in autumnal glow against postmodern baseboard illumination and scene surtitles.
As Nora, always looking forward yet tied to the past, Tobin-Lehl is nonpareil. This is a dream part, and she catches all the quicksilver and volcanic impulse of a woman ahead of her time but not quite sure she should be. She must keep marching, though, for the horizon is her destiny. She is a magnificent Nora. And if anyone can hold his own against her full-rigged galleon, it is Lehl, who at first is aghast that Nora has waltzed back into his drab existence, but nevertheless quietly hints that maybe, just maybe, she'll return to him. These two pros are a wonder to watch; their sparks incandescent.
Of course, the other pro is Edmundson, a marvel all herself. Her tired nanny, old and sickly, has reserves of boiling anger at Nora for deserting the family. She refuses to accept Nora's argument that she chose to neglect her own child for the security that Torvald provided. In high dudgeon, her patented basso profundo shaking the rafters, she lashes out at Nora, but the storm is useless. Later, she's dismissed by Torvald and slinks back to her tiny room. Her portrait's so indelible, we miss her from then on.
There's a pro-in-waiting with Igwilo. Straight and proper, Emmy's the counter force to Nora, swatting away her arguments and then slyly suggesting a way out of her mother's predicament. Dewy and fresh, Igwilo's ramrod posture is Emmy's armor. She may halt Nora's siege, but will she win her own future battle? Temptingly Igwilo leaves us questioning.
Hotly directed by Alanna Dorsett, whose work is unknown to us, but now we want more, A Doll's House, Part II is both actor and author's showcase. This 90-minute play never falters, never loses momentum, and never loses our interest. If anything, Hnath brings Ibsen's classic smack in our face. The old Norwegian's premise, shocking in his day, is relevant right now. It will, perhaps, always be relevant. Nora no longer slams the front door, though. Now, she flings it open to a burst of blazing sunshine.
A Doll's House, Part II continues through November 6. At 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays at 4th Wall Theatre Company, 1824 Spring Street. Audience members will be required to show proof of vaccine or a negative COVID-19 test and wear masks. Socially distanced seating. For more information, call 832-767-4991 or visit 4thwalltheatreco.com. $17-$53.