The theater world is filled with slamming doors, but there’s never been an onstage door slammed with the force and finality of Nora Helmer’s exit in “A Doll’s House.”
Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 portrait of a woman imprisoned in a stultifying marriage ended with Nora walking out on her husband Torvald and their three children. As she slammed the door behind her, the sound left little doubt that she was gone for good.
But now Nora’s back, knocking on that same door. In Lucas Hnath’s richly imagined and surprisingly funny “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” it’s 15 years later, and there’s unfinished business in the Helmer house.
Beautifully directed by former Berkeley Rep associate artistic director Les Waters, the show opened Thursday as the first production of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s 2018-19 season.
For those of us who always wondered what became of Ibsen’s proto-feminist heroine, Hnath lays it out in the opening scene. Answering the door, Anne-Marie, the Helmers’ long-suffering housekeeper, greets Nora with a fine-tuned mix of astonishment and barely disguised scorn.
“We thought you’d gone off and died,” she says.
Far from it. In fact, Nora, elegantly dressed and unmistakably confident, has spent her time away establishing a career as a feminist writer, one whose novels depict marriage as an unbearably cruel kind of torture.
Her books are wildly successful, but they’ve landed her in legal trouble complicated by the fact that she’s still married to Torvald.
She thought he’d filed the divorce papers — and she’s returned to ask him to get it done before she’s exposed as a literary hypocrite.
Of course, it’s not going to be that easy.
In scenes that give each character — Nora, Anne-Marie, Torvald, and Nora’s now-grown daughter, Emmy — a chance to weigh in, Hnath presents a complex web of connections, desires and long-simmering resentments that lend validity to their respective points of view.
The beauty of Hnath’s sequel is the way it expresses the characters’ 19th century concerns in 21st century language, raising the emotional stakes throughout. Waters’ elegant staging supports the playwright’s subtly subversive script in a spare period set by Andrew Boyer, era-spanning costumes by Annie Smart, and focused lighting by James Ballen.
As each new scene puts Nora’s long-held beliefs to the test, the cast gives incisive performances. Mary Beth Fisher is simply brilliant as the mature, self-realized woman Ibsen’s Nora might have become.
John Judd lends Torvald a depth of feeling that is both unexpected and moving. Nancy E. Carroll’s wry Anne-Marie and Nikki Massoud’s bright, articulate Emmy make riveting contributions.
These characters may be living in the late 1800s, but “A Doll’s House, Part 2” makes them feel very much at home in our time.
A Doll’s House, Part 2
Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 21
Tickets: $30 to $97
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org