Huntington's "A Doll's House, Part 2": Knock Knock Who's There?

Nancy E. Carroll & Mary Beth Fisher in "A Doll's House, Part 2"
(photo: Kevin Berne) 

At one point in Huntington Theatre Company's current production of A Doll's House, Part 2, the character of Anne Marie (Nancy E. Carroll) barks at her former employer Nora (Mary Beth Fisher): “There's the door...I know you know how to use it”. She's of course referencing the potent final scene in Ibsen's A Doll's House when Nora slammed that door and left her husband and children behind. Huntington presented its version of Ibsen's original work, albeit with a slight change of punctuation in its title (Doll House), just two seasons ago. In 2017, playwright Lucas Hnath created a sequel that takes place some fifteen years after Nora's dramatic departure in Ibsen's storytelling. It inexplicably earned eight Tony Award nominations including Best Play and has become the most produced play to be performed throughout the country this season. This version, a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, directed by Les Waters, attempts to be as much a commentary on our times and how things haven't changed as it is on the issues dealt with by Ibsen himself. Not unlike Bruce Norris' 2010 Pulitzer Prize winning Clybourne Park sequel to Lorraine Hansbery's 1959 A Raisin in the Sun, this play serves as an epilogue to the original source, or at least tries to do so.

John Judd & Mary Beth Fisher in "A Doll's House, Part 2"
(photo: Kevin Berne)

Now a successful independent writer, Nora has come knocking on that proverbial door, seeking for various reasons to finalize her divorce from her husband Torvald (John Judd), but there are complications, most of them implausible, that must first be aired with him and their daughter Emmy (Nicki Massoud). If Ibsen's play was about the suffocating issues of the time, this work aims to expose the sublimated underbelly of society, then and now. By juxtaposing contemporary dialog with period costumes, the concept is neither fish nor fowl, raising the question of the intention behind this schizoid effort. With this play's placement just a decade and a half after Nora's departure, what is the point of illustrating that nothing much has changed in society within this brief period? If this supposedly matured Nora is truly a woman of the world, how is it that she is so incredibly naive? That said, there are some apt comic lines, anachronisms though they may be; less apt are a number of totally out-of-character f-bombs and expletives, jarring in this supposedly historic context. Crucially, the basic premise is what lacks interest or development, merely a statement of what Nora's limited “options” are.

Nicki Massoud in "A Doll's House, Part 2"
(photo: Kevin Berne)

Under the Direction by Waters, the compact ensemble of four actors all (save Carroll) end up declaiming rather than portraying characters. Even the minimalist Scenic Design by Andrew Boyce is strange, consisting of no furniture except a table, two chairs and a clothes rack; we are told that all of Nora's possessions were tossed out (and never replaced in a decade and a half?). The stark Lighting Design by Yi Zhao and Sound Design by J. Jumbelic are effective, as is the period Costume Design by Annie Smart, though it too seems incongruous given the colloquial dialog Hnath employs.

This company's previous production of Doll House also suffered from curiously “updated” writing that required a massive suspension of disbelief. It didn't work then and it doesn't work now. This time Nora's exit “line” isn't a slammed door, but her exclamation that she thought the world would have changed in the intervening fifteen years but didn't, and that she hopes to live to see it. We're all still waiting.


SpeakEasy's "Small Mouth Sounds": Speaking Volumes

The Cast of "Small Mouth Sounds"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

One can't say enough about SpeakEasy Stage's current production of Small Mouth Sounds, the 2015 play by Harvard grad Bess Wohl. While seemingly simple and direct, in reality this is a profoundly complex treatment with much more to offer than first meets the ear. There is virtually no dialog (in the traditional sense, at least) in what transpires, though as the title suggests there are quite a few sighs, grunts and other non-verbal means of communication. Directed by M. Bevin O'Gara, who correctly states that “silence is everything in this play”, it's a brilliantly warped approach to much of the tribal conflict spanning the nation and the world in this age of doublespeak and “fake news”. 
As the work begins, six strangers (whom we will come to know as broken) are seeking refuge and healing through a silent wellness retreat. They are informed by the disembodied voice of “The Teacher” (Marianna Bassham) that they are to embrace the silence, and open their hearts and minds to it. The group consists of a lesbian couple Joan (Kerry A. Dowling) and Judy (Celeste Oliva), the ultra-quiet Jan (Barlow Adamson), the disorganized Alicia (Gigi Watson), the you-tube yoga mentor Rodney (Sam Simahk) and the intensely serious and seriously intense Ned (Nael Nacer). Each harbors secrets that will gradually be revealed as the retreat progresses (or regresses). At one point the teacher and students even reverse roles, as she becomes progressively more unhinged, though in typical yoga classes students are at the mercy of the teacher and are her or his disciples. The play devolves into a parody of wellness movements, both the valuable and the invalid, skewering much of the modern fascination with fashionable trends.

Nael Nacer & Sam Simahk in "Small Mouth Sounds"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

The playwright has spoken of how we constantly project fantasy on each other, the question of (and quest for) inner peace, and how her play is so much about pain and how we deal with it. She also posits just how temporary and fragile everything is, and how difficult, especially in our times, it is for us to be quiet. In successful retreats, she also observes, finding your inner landscape can teach greater stress tolerance and emotional balance that lasts long after the retreat is over. And all is not sobriety, as there is much humor (such as The Teacher's discovery that the key to enlightenment might just be over-the-counter cold meds). Her frequent response to a crisis is a world-weary “oh, well”. There are numerous hints as to the backstories of these half dozen characters, not to be revealed here, that gradually expose their individual crises. Attention must be paid to SpeakEasy's production which makes up in its formidable actors (all of whom will be familiar to local audiences) and creative contributors what it lacks in verbosity. Each of the cast members, including the never-seen Bassham, are as good as it gets in the acting department, though only Nacer's Ned gets a relatively lengthy monologue when all are asked to write down their “intention”; Ned states his is to breathe and find peace with all of the others. The creative work on hand includes the simple but evocative Scenic Design by Cristina Todesco, Costume Design by Mary Lauve, Lighting Design by Annie Wiegand and Sound Design by Elizabeth Cahill.

The Cast of "Small Mouth Sounds"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

At the end of the play, one participant references The Teacher's earlier story of how a frog from a small well encounters the vast ocean: “when you see the ocean... you may not be able to return to the well.” After all the others have left, this sole remaining character sits silently waiting for the next lecture to begin. An Australian study concluded that resistance to silence is learned behavior. At one hour and forty minutes without intermission, this play proves this, as well as its own somewhat tongue-in-cheek maxim, “you are not alone”. In the face of such thunderous talent, on page and stage, one can only remain speechless.