One main reason that Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” is considered such a classic of world theater is due to how ahead of its time the 1879 Norwegian drama was, in terms of portraying the disillusionment of a woman who yearns for more out of life than to merely exist as a subjugated wife and mother. That the play would end with Nora Helmer rejecting the domestic strife of an unhappy marriage, abandoning her husband and three small children in search of her individual identity, was universally shocking.
Lucas Hnath’s cleverly conceived 2017 sequel, “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” revisits the Helmer household 15 years later, taking a decidedly wittier approach to depicting the incumbent upheaval surrounding Nora’s sudden return.
The new play is still technically a period piece, to be sure, but it’s very much a product of its own 21st-century time, too — not only with regard to its R-rated language, but also in the sense of drawing topical social observations about gender politics or equal rights. When, for example, Nora remarks that “In the future, marriage will be a thing of the past,” it doesn’t register quite as presciently or profoundly coming from Hnath as it might have coming from Ibsen.
Even so, coming from the consummate actress Tess Malis Kincaid, who renders a bravura performance as Nora in this Actor’s Express/Aurora Theatre collaboration, it rings utterly true just the same. Under the expert direction of Express artistic director Freddie Ashley (who previously staged Hnath’s powerful “The Christians” there), the show ran last fall at the Express and has now relocated to Lawrenceville’s Aurora through Feb. 10.
In moving the production to a larger venue, some of the play’s more intimate and introspective qualities feel slightly compromised, some of the nuance and subtlety of Kincaid’s work harder to appreciate, some of the quieter dialogue occasionally obscured (at least from where I happened to be seated in the balcony, underneath the theater’s rumbling heating ducts).
The Nora who returns is not necessarily the same Nora who left those many years ago. The rest of the town has been led to presume that she’s dead. For her part, Nora has simply presumed that she’s divorced. In fact, neither presumption is right. The author of a semiautobiographical best-selling novel about a wayward (ex-)wife and mother, she has indulged in a number of free-spirited affairs that suddenly qualify as “criminal,” once she discovers she’s still legally married to Torvald, who never actually filed for divorce.
Rob Cleveland plays the husband a bit too affably. He’s most serviceable in capturing the flustered, overtly comedic aspects newly imposed on the character by Hnath, but he doesn’t delve deeply enough to really justify Torvald’s professed regrets about life, or to suggest many of the domineering and condescending traits that provoked Nora to leave him in the first place.
Faring better are Deadra Moore as the family’s sensible housekeeper and nanny, and the especially resourceful Shelli Delgado as the cunning young daughter Nora has never known — and in whom she’s dismayed to find a chip off the old block, revealing shades of her former self.
“A Doll’s House, Part 2” may not challenge as potently or endure for as long as the Ibsen original, but there isn’t much doubt that Ashley’s exceedingly polished Express/Aurora production does score as a certifiable showcase for the formidable Kincaid — delivering a performance that ranks among her very best, if not one for the ages.
“A Doll’s House, Part 2”
Through Feb. 10. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. $39-$55. 10 a.m. Tuesday (Jan. 22 only, $20-$26). Aurora Theatre, 128 E. Pike St., Lawrenceville. 678-226-6222, auroratheatre.com.
Bottom line: Not quite as intimate the second time around, but still bristling.
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