Coyote StageWorks is starting its 11th season with a terrific production of Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2.
Founding artistic director Chuck Yates and his production team are thrilled to have found a new home at the Palm Springs Cultural Center (formerly the Camelot Theatres). The venue is a great fit, providing a cozier, more-intimate experience for the audience, as well as a lovely upstairs bar and lounge for after-show relaxation.
Yates’ choice of A Doll’s House, Part 2, as the season opener was a wise move. The story is set 15 years after Norwegian wife Nora Helmer walks out of her stifling marriage in Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 drama A Doll’s House. She has now returned, perhaps partly to soothe old emotional wounds, but she’s also on a personal mission: Now a successful writer of books urging other women to liberate themselves, Nora (Robin McAlpine) needs the help of Torvald (Don Amendolia), the husband she left behind. It turns out a judge has discovered she is still married to Torvald and is blackmailing her. Unless Torvald files the divorce papers (which he promised to do when Nora first left), she could lose her both her fortune and her professional reputation.
Also in the mix are the nanny and housekeeper, Anne Marie (Barbara Gruen), and Nora’s now-adult daughter, Emmy (Lizzie Schmelling).
The performances are first-rate across the board. McAlpine is excellent in the pivotal role of Nora. Full of confidence and bravado now that she has found creative and financial success as an author, Nora is a totally different person than she was when she departed 15 years earlier. McAlpine makes Nora’s sense of accomplishment and her twinges of guilt over putting herself first—at a time when most women did not do so—feel quite real.
As Torvald, Amendolia is fabulous. The wound from Nora’s leaving him is so deep that he can’t even look at her upon her return. His anger and pain are raw: “I loved you and you threw it way!” he bellows.
Schmelling’s performance as Emmy is riveting. Quietly seething with fury at the woman who abandoned her as a young child, Emmy has built up a wall around her heart—and has no intention of letting her mother in. After learning of her daughter’s engagement, Nora warns her of the perils of marriage. Emmy counters, “I WANT to be held and possessed.”
Equally as good is Gruen as nanny/housekeeper Anne Marie. Much of the burden of keeping the family together and sane after Nora walked out fell on her. Listening to Nora rattle on about her glamorous life, filled with lovers and book deals, becomes too much for Anne Marie: “You should say thank you for raising your kids!”
Kudos to Yates for great casting, and for masterfully guiding his ensemble through the story.
Thomas Valach’s set is perfect. After moving into their new home, Yates and company took out two front rows of seats, and knocked out a back wall in one of the movie theaters to accommodate dressing rooms. It makes for a wonderful, intimate theater experience.
Frank Cazares’ costumes are spot on, and the lighting and modern music scattered throughout the show are a nice touch. The juxtaposition of period costumes with modern-day props and language works well here, as when Anne Marie enters in a long dress, apron and snood … while wielding a Dustbuster. The smattering of profanity is also effective. When, during a tense argument with his estranged wife, Torvald blurts out, “Fuck you, Nora!” it seems at first jarring, but then wholly appropriate.
As with all theatrical productions, the story affects each viewer differently. One older man told me he did not like the Nora character; she reminded him of Meryl Streep’s character in Kramer vs. Kramer, a woman who coldly abandoned her family and then had the gall to return. As a woman who was once married to a controlling, overbearing man who was threatened by my longing for liberation and creative fulfillment, I had a contradictory viewpoint: The deep frustration and soul pain of being with a partner who refuses to allow you to become the person you were meant to be is excruciating. I suspect many women will see themselves in Nora. Though things have changed a great deal since 1879, females in our society still struggle daily for equality and respect.
I totally understood Nora’s desire to flee a stifling marriage, but the issue of the children is more complicated. Does personal fulfillment always come first, even if you hurt others deeply in the process? How long and how hard should one “work at” a troubled marriage?
These are the big questions audience members will be wrestling with long after they see A Doll’s House, Part 2. Isn’t that what good theater is all about?
Congrats, Coyote StageWorks and Chuck Yates on your new home and a superb season-opening production. Bravo!
A Doll’s House, Part 2, a production of Coyote StageWorks, is performed at various times Wednesday through Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 16, at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, 2300 E. Baristo Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $50; tickets to the Valentine’s Day show with a champagne reception afterward are $75. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission. For tickets or information, call 760-318-0024, or visit www.coyotestageworks.org.