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‘A Doll’s House Part 2’ proves you can go home again — but sometimes why bother?

Sandra Marquez (as Nora) and Yasen Peyankov (as Torvald) in a scene from Steppenwolf Theater's Chicago premiere production of 'A Doll’s House, Part 2" by Lucas Hnath. | Michael Brosilow

Sandra Marquez (as Nora) and Yasen Peyankov (as Torvald) in a scene from Steppenwolf Theater's Chicago premiere production of 'A Doll’s House, Part 2" by Lucas Hnath. | Michael Brosilow

Lucas Hnath’s plays often feel more like discussions of topical issues more than dramas propelled by dialogue in the service of a good story. He took on mega-church culture with “The Christians,” ethics and science with “Isaac’s Eye,” and politics with “Hillary and Clinton.”

So it goes with the ambitiously titled “A Doll’s House, Part 2.” The Tony Award nominee tackles feminism and marriage, both packaged as a series of conversations between Nora, the heroine of Henrik Ibsen’s original “A Doll’s House,” and the family (and maid) she left behind with the door slam heard around the world.

‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’
★★1⁄2
When: Through March 17
Where: Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
Tickets: $20-$99
Info: Steppenwolf.org

There is nothing subtle about Hnath’s 90-minute play. The first thing the audience sees is an oversized door. The first thing it hears is an insistent knock. It’s 1894 — 15 years after Nora’s iconic exit. In the interim, she’s become a wealthy novelist. Still, Nora (Sandra Marquez) is in crisis. It seems her husband Torvald (Yasen Peyankov) never filed the divorce papers. Nora had been living as a single woman — signing contracts and such — so she could be imprisoned for fraud if Torvald doesn’t get the paperwork sorted. Torvald, meanwhile, has let the world conclude that Nora is dead. Since he’s been collecting some sort of pension for widowers, he can’t file without risking his own fraud charges.

The plot hinges on what Torvald will do about the paperwork, but “A Doll’s House, Part 2” is really all about giving its four characters the chance to expound on the nature of love, the institution of marriage and the state of women’s rights in the late 19th century. In addition to Nora and Torvald, Hnath gives us the perspectives of Nora’s daughter Emmy (Celeste M. Cooper) and Anne Marie (Barbara E. Robertson), the maid who raised Nora’s children.

It’s easy to see why “A Doll’s House, Part 2” was one of the most produced dramas of 2018: It’s got a minimalist set (a handful of chairs and that door, on-stage jury boxes where some of the audience are seated), and four characters who each get at least one meaty monologue. Directed by Robin Witt, it’s an odd choice for the Steppenwolf’s cavernous downstairs theater. Empty space towers above and around Nora et al, engulfing them and making them seem small. All that space is pretentiously on-the-nose: We’re in a big space where Big Issues will unfold.

Celeste M. Cooper stars as Emmy in Steppenwolf Theater's production of "A Doll’s House, Part 2," directed by Robin Witt. Performances run through March 17, 2019. | Michael Brosilow

Celeste M. Cooper stars as Emmy in Steppenwolf Theater’s production of “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” directed by Robin Witt. Performances run through March 17, 2019. | Michael Brosilow

And so they do. Witt and her cast make the most of a script that’s mostly didactic speechifying. But not even this mighty group of actors can overcome a script that is riddled with anachronisms. Hnath sprinkles in the occasional F-bomb, and gives the dialogue a contemporary vernacular that is at odds with the specificity of the setting and costume designer Izumi Inaba’s elaborately detailed period garb. Anachronistic language can make period pieces feel timeless or contemporary, but here it’s as if the play can’t quite make up its mind about when it’s taking place.

Still and all, there are many fascinating passages in Hnath’s drama, and Witt’s cast brings them to life. Among the most memorable come Emmy. When she expresses her views on desire and marriage, it’s vividly apparent that Emmy is truly her mother’s daughter – despite their diametrically opposing opinions of marriage. Cooper brings a flickering edge of menace to Emmy; this is a woman who knows how to manipulate without ever seeming to do so. She’s at once innocent and filled with guile, and when she’s onstage, you’re hanging on her every word.

Marquez is magnificent as Nora. When she speaks of gender roles and a future where (she’s utterly certain) traditional marriage will be viewed with revulsion, it’s like listening to an evangelist with the gift of prophecy (albeit one who gets the future terribly wrong.) Payenkov’s Torval makes you feel for a man who was devastated by his wife’s departure but who genuinely wants to the right thing by her. And as the beleaguered maid who raised Nora’s children, Robertson embodies the all-too recognizable dilemma of a woman forced by poverty to neglect her own children in order to take a job caring for someone else’s.

Despite the power of the cast, Hnath’s plot (such as it is) almost sinks the entire production in the final scenes. The resolution of the will-he-or-won’t-he-file-the-papers crisis turns out to be of little consequence. Moreover, the final actions of both Nora and Torvald directly contradict almost everything both characters have so eloquently argued previously. The final moments point to the fact that — like “A Doll’s House” — “A Doll’s House, Part 2” is a vehicle for exploring fraught topics. The difference is that Ibsen wrapped that exploration into a fascinating story. Hnath simply sets up talking points.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.