‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’ Review: Small Screen, Small Stage, Big Impact

‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’ Review: Small Screen, Small Stage, Big Impact

Florida Repertory Theatre’s production of Lucas Hnath’s play rises where the original Broadway production stumbled.

By Terry Teachout
April 16, 2020
Read the Review at WSJ.com

When I first started covering regional theater 16 years ago, I was astonished to discover that what I then called “Broadway-quality shows” could be seen in every corner of the country. That condescending phrase, though, proved inadequate, since most of the shows I saw on the road were at least as good as—or better than—anything on Broadway. Moreover, the vast majority of America’s large- and medium-size cities are home to at least one high-quality theater company, while many have more than that. Most of the theatrical webcasts reviewed in this space in recent weeks have been by troupes that I’d previously seen, admired and reviewed in person. Now that they’re all temporarily closed by the coronavirus, it’s inspiring to be able to revisit them electronically.

Among the finest of them is Fort Myers’s Florida Repertory Theatre.Located in a city better known for its beaches, Florida Rep is noteworthy for its beautifully proportioned 393-seat Arcade Theatre, a former vaudeville house built in 1915 and converted into a legitimate proscenium-stage theater after a stretch as a downtown movie house, and its semi-permanent ensemble of actors, directors, designers and stage managers, all of whom know each other’s work so well that the company’s shows have a single-minded artistic unanimity you never see on Broadway.

“A Doll’s House, Part 2,” Florida Rep’s last scheduled show before being shuttered by the virus, was a production of Lucas Hnath’s 2017 sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s bourgeois-baiting 1879 play in which Nora Helmer, an emotionally unfulfilled mother of three, walks out on her family to seek a more abundant life, slamming the front door behind her as she departs. In Mr. Hnath’s play, she comes home 15 years later to settle scores with her husband, having since written a best-selling memoir about what a jerk he was. While I myself found “A Doll’s House, Part 2” to be smug and obvious and disliked Sam Gold’s ostentatiously austere Broadway staging, mine was very much a minority report. Moreover, I was in no doubt of the excellence of the individual performances of Laurie Metcalf as Nora, Chris Cooper as her husband Torvald, Condola Rashad as their daughter and Jayne Houdyshell as the family housekeeper, and I was curious to see how Mr. Hnath’s play would fare under less starry circumstances.

Sure enough, Florida Rep’s revival makes a potent and, in my case, surprising case for the sheer theatrical effectiveness of “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” which Chris Clavelli has wisely staged less as a Major Political Statement than as a domestic comedy with feminist overtones. The four performances are broader in tone than those of their Broadway counterparts, always to good effect: Rachel Burttram is unabashedly gleeful as Nora, Brendan Powers is deliberately and appropriately pompous as Torvald, Viki Boyle is deliciously clueless as Anne Marie, the housekeeper, and Aishling Pembroke is entirely believable as the daughter. Mr. Clavelli, a 20-year member of the company’s ensemble, long ago proved himself to be as sterling a director as he is an actor, and he also has a signal home-court advantage over Mr. Gold: Three of his fellow ensemble members, Ms. Boyle, Ms. Burttram and Mr. Powers, are in the cast. They give the impression of being actual family members who grew up together and thus know every corner of each other’s minds. This adds immeasurably to the play’s dramatic plausibility.

I first saw “A Doll’s House, Part 2” in the 800-seat John Golden Theatre, one of Broadway’s smallest theaters. Like most dramas, though, it profits from being mounted in an even smaller house like the Arcade, one whose comfortable intimacy comes across in this webcast. Although five TV cameras were used for the shoot, the camerawork is plain and unobtrusive, as befits a four-character-one-set play. The company was able to tape only a single performance, the final dress rehearsal, before the pandemic shut the theater down. You’d never guess it, for few rough edges can be seen or heard. It took place in front of a small but lively audience of staffers—the first and only time that the show was performed before a live audience, and further proof of my growing conviction that the most satisfying theatrical webcasts are the ones in which the audience’s response is clearly audible.

I called Florida Rep “one of America’s top repertory companies” in a 2011 review of its production of A.R. Gurney’s “Sylvia,” which was superior in every way to the play’s big-ticket 2015 Broadway revival. Watching its equally impressive version of “A Doll’s House, Part 2” serves as a reminder of what has been stolen from lovers of American theater by the evil depredations of the coronavirus. May we get it back soon!

—Mr. Teachout, the Journal’s drama critic, is the author of “Satchmo at the Waldorf.” Write to him at tteachout@wsj.com.