Theater Review: A Doll’s House(s) in Cedar Rapids

"A Doll's House"

Theatre Cedar Rapids, 7:30 p.m., Thursday, March 16, $27

"A Doll's House, Part 2"

Theatre Cedar Rapids, 7:30 p.m., Friday, March 17, $27

"A Doll's House"

Theatre Cedar Rapids, 2:30 p.m., Saturday, March 18, $27

"A Doll's House, Part 2"

Theatre Cedar Rapids, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, March 18, $27

An image from Theatre Cedar Rapids’ 2023 performance of “A Doll’s House” – Photo by Benjamin Stuben Farrar, contributed

I entered the Grandon Theatre at Theatre Cedar Rapids to see A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen (written in 1879), and as I passed the veiled Victorian frames and black molded walls, I was transported to another time and place. Knowing I’d see A Doll’s House, Part 2, by Lucas Hnath (written in 2017) the next evening was an added treat.

As the house lights went down and the first play began, I was struck by the work of scenic artist Lucie Greene and technical director Jason “Blue” Herbert. Their vision of the titular house and their use of lights and veils wowed me throughout both shows.

There are scenes in A Doll’s House where a performer is obscured by one of the veil’s adorning the set, while another person is in barren view. In these scenes, I wondered, “Who is lying? What is each of them hiding behind?” They were two people living in the same space having different experiences. I felt like pulling the veils down by the end of the show, wanting to expose the secrets they hid.

Further pulling me into the world of the play was Tommy Truelsen’s sound design. In particular, the tick tick ticking of a clock, getting louder in stress-inducing moments and making time itself feel like a character in the play.

We are introduced to Nora in the opening moments of the first play. She’s Torvald’s wife, his “little songbird” or “silly squirrel.” A stunning profile portrait of a doll kept in a toy house. However, she is not as silly as everyone thinks.

Hannah Brewer is stunning as Nora, embodying her childish charm with a flirty preciousness. When she dances Nora’s tarantella — thoughtfully choreographed by Megan Robinson — Brewer shines. I got goosebumps as she let her hair down. Brewer’s Nora danced like her life depended on it.

Torvald — the workaholic, admonishing husband, played understatedly by Jacob Kostiv — had a level of control in each scene he entered. The easy confidence of a man ignorant of his wife’s experience. Sometimes I wondered if Kostiv was connecting to his scene partners; I’m not sure if this was a conscious choice to keep his Torvald haughtily above his wife. Kostiv’s quiet countenance is able to swing to anger swiftly and fiercely. There were moments I was frightened by him, particularly near the end of the play.

Noel VanDenBosch wears many hats in this production (including an actual hat, which was gorgeous). Her work is incredible both off-stage as associate director and member of the carpenter and welder team, and on-stage as Kristine Linde, Nora’s childhood friend.

Kristine took my breath away when she arrived in her gray blue Liberty of London gown, perfectly pressed and pleated. Her contrast to Nora’s costuming helped me understand the differences in women’s roles during the period. VanDenBosch’s Kristine is layered with a bruised past. She’s always stoic and kind, even through Nora’s crass remarks which betray an obliviousness of Kristine’s feelings. VanDenBosch lives the character’s choices in front of the audience.

Where VanDenBosch’s Kristine was veiled, Brian Smith’s Nils Krogstad is exuberant. Smith is dashing and believable playing the lawyer, even when Nils shares secrets of past discrepancies. Scenes with Smith and VanDenBosch together were delightful. As the intimacy between the two character’s grew I could see traces of the care Carrie Pozdol provided.

As the intimacy director and director of the production, Pozdol’s direction is visible time and again. During kisses, I could count the beats, see the consent and feel the time and support these moments were given.

Philip Schramp’s Dr. Rank is chipper with a voice seemingly registered to constant dismissal; not quite “man-spaining,” but belittling. In act two, he’s earnest, delightfully naughty and tragic.

With chatelaine clinking at her hip, Melissa Kaska as Anne Marie is the true keeper of the house’s secrets, knowing, seeing everything, underfoot. When her story is unveiled, Kaska delivers a range of emotions within a speech. Her eyes alone speak volumes through octagonal glasses. Kaska broke my heart with her tenderness and connection to Brewer’s Nora. When Anne’s sentiments change, it’s just as deeply felt.

It’s worth mentioning that, across both productions, the costumes are impeccable. Period perfect in every way from shoes to hair thanks to costume designer Melonie Stoll and her team, as well as wig designer Sarah Fried. Their efforts help convey the changes each character goes through over time, particularly Nora.

Nora’s opening look was darling, with a Norwegian-inspired embroidered and braided waistband mixed with a velvet skirt and satin top, the look of a worldly, wealthy woman of the 1870s. Her “capri girl” costume in act two was simple and effective. Her green, fur lined coat at the end conveyed a new found strength.

“Don’t interrupt me,“ Nora finally says at the end of A Doll’s House. She shuts the door behind her, drops the veils and her life continues, uninterrupted.

It should be noted that, in moments of her performance behind a veil, Brewer’s face foreshadows that of the future Nora from A Doll’s House, Part 2. I can see similar hand choices and facial mugging. Nora flirts when she wants something, and the same is true in the sequel, set 15 years later. Manipulation is her dance.

An image from Theatre Cedar Rapids’ 2023 performance of “A Doll’s House, Part 2.” – Photo by Benjamin Stuben Farrar, contributed

A Doll’s House ends with so many questions left in the air, I was eager to see Part 2 the next day. Entering the theater this time, I instantly noticed the starkness of the house. The veils are gone and the players sit outside the house in elaborate chairs. They can hear and see everything happening. They listen but react in moderation, an eye widening here, a small move of the head there.

The openness of the set also raises questions regarding the state of things in this sequel. Whatever has occurred, the comfort and life in the house have left.

In this sequel, Nora is back at the door, a new woman (literally) met with echos of her former life. Now played by Jessica Link, she has transformed from a caged bird to a phoenix, dripping with confidence. Her smile greets Marty Norton’s Anne Marie with an air of grandeur. Her plum satin suit with black rosette detail is striking against the stark house. Link’s Nora is still silly, but she has grown into a woman who is unafraid to take up space.

Marty Norton is staunch as Anne Marie in Part 2. She’s had to deal with the mess Nora left behind and, in doing so, has become tough, no longer willing to take any of Nora’s old shit. Norton delivers the playwright’s modern words with a salty and sassy punch, enhanced by how intently Norton listens to her scene partners.

When Kehry Anson Lane’s Torvald finally recognizes his former wife, his world shatters. You can see Lane’s face go from confusion to fear to anger and despair in just a few nuanced glances. This Torvald is broken, the years haven’t been easy. While in scenes with Link, I sometimes think I’m watching couples therapy. I see director Caroline Price and assistant director Hannah Green’s guidance, keeping these scenes grounded and dynamic.

Upon meeting daughter Emmy, played exquisitely by Angelique Williams, Nora has found her match. Emmy is cool, cunning and not afraid to correct the mother she never knew. She is curt and brazen — very like her mother, but somehow more composed. The scenes between her and Link are outstanding, filled with constant urgency.

These plays were written more than a century apart, yet they support each other in helping the audience understand the world more fully. The transparency of Part 2 is welcomed after the veiled world of secrets and lies in its antecedent. I recommend seeing the shows as a pair. I think I would be confused to see Part 2 without the original and vice versa. Seeing A Doll’s House and A Doll’s House, Part 2, I felt the sheet was pulled off the dusty dollhouse in the attic, revealing a new silhouette of lives lived with no regrets.