A Doll’s House, Part 2   |  ★★★★ |  RedBird Theater Company  |  Durham Bottling Company  |  Through Nov. 19

When a new theater company begins, it first makes a statement about necessity and the future: that it is needed, and that the region’s arts and culture cannot be complete—or as complete—without the contributions it will make. It’s gratifying to note that RedBird Theater’s inaugural production of A Doll’s House, Part 2 fully punctuates that statement with robust, dimensional performances of a thought-provoking script; intelligent direction and design; and production values that, for the most part, meet professional standards.

But given the area’s ongoing shortage of usable performance spaces (documented in our fall season preview), when a company like RedBird debuts in a brand-new venue, it’s also asserting that its space will actually let the company present its work without interference or sabotage. Unfortunately, our first experience Saturday night in the warehouse space within Suite Four at Durham Bottling Company’s coworking complex on Ramseur Road raises questions about whether that can happen there.

But first, the good news—and there’s plenty of it.

Contemporary playwright Lucas Hnath’s odd postscript to Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 drama begins 15 years after central character Nora (company cofounder Jeri Lynn Schulke) has fled an intolerable marriage to Torvald (cofounder David Berberian) that reflected the constricting gender roles and the unforgiving classist mores of bourgeois Norwegian society. Nora now returns to the titled structure for a reckoning being forced upon her.

In the time since, she’s gained no small degree of fame and notoriety for her pseudonymous novels and other writings on “the way the world is towards women and the ways in which the world is wrong,” as she tells Anne Marie (sharp Lenore Field), the woman who first raised Nora as a nanny and then raised her children after she fled.

Those writings—which, through her descriptions, embody tenets of first-wave feminism and probe toward the second—have aroused the anger of a conservative judge. After investigating Nora’s true identity, he threatens to ruin her by prosecuting her for conducting business in ways that a married woman of that time was not permitted to do.

Nora thought Torvald had divorced her 15 years ago and that she had built her career legally. Now she has to ask Torvald to file their divorce (which she also can’t do easily, as a woman) and avert the looming threats of bankruptcy and prison.

Toward that end, she writes Anne Marie and arranges a visit to enlist her help while Torvald’s at work. Field and director Mark Filiaci mine the humor in their initial meeting, as an aging Anne Marie assesses the changes in Nora with the unvarnished candor we sometimes get from the folks back home. “You got a little fatter,” she notes right off the bat, before politely but pointedly inquiring about Nora’s “insides.” These come before she reassures Nora, “I never wanted bad things to happen to you,” while others presumably did.

But when Hnath saddles Nora with stem-winding disquisitions on the state of women, it’s not always clear what favors Hnath does for feminism. Naively, Nora believes the end of marriage as an institution will come, on its own, in 20 to 30 years. In an overused strategy, Filiaci has Schulke, Field, and later Berberian clearly address entire passages debating the roles of women to us in the audience as a jury in moments that stray too close to courtroom drama.

Though Nora navigates—and attempts to manipulate—her relationships with Anne Marie and Torvald, she finds the tables turned when the only person who can help her is Emmy, the daughter she abandoned 15 years before. Filiaci and talented young actor Marleigh Purgar-McDonald craft Emmy as an enigmatic old soul. Though she bears no animosity, the other cards in her emotional deck remain facedown throughout a suspenseful meeting, until she begins to “correct” Nora on some key assumptions about their relationships.

Hnath considers the issues of interpersonal boundaries with care; there’s irony and maybe justice in how much an estranged and similarly manipulative mother and daughter see of one another before a telling denouement.

Now for the not-so-good news. Theater companies have lived to regret ill-advised real estate choices before now. Throughout both groups’ tenures, Pure Life Theatre and Sonorous Road’s shows at the Royal Bakery building on Hillsborough Street were regularly ambushed by dance music from an event space next door and the horns of passing freight and passenger trains. When that happened, the dramatic tension that took productions more than an hour to develop was irretrievably dispersed in seconds, frustrating artists and audiences alike. To say the least, the region doesn’t need another room like that.

Saturday night, no disco tribute distracted us as Nora confessed to missing her children during her years of self-imposed exile. It was just the sound of someone wheeling a single utility cart with something heavy on it across the outside porch into the room next door, breaking down a wedding reception that night that had made the company delay curtain until 8:15.

It was the only such interruption during the show. It also compromised a major dramatic moment in a very good production.

Then, when a passing train blared behind the building less than five minutes after the show—perhaps Amtrak’s Piedmont, which runs that track each evening at or after 9:33—I reflected that if the production had taken 10 minutes longer, the playbill’s estimated running time, Nora’s departure might have been given a very different impact.

Can RedBird successfully play dramatic dodgeball, timing shows and intermissions against trains that don’t always run on time? Can Durham Bottling staff guarantee that its event space will be quiet throughout prime weekend performance hours? Not an insignificant part of the success of RedBird’s inaugural season hangs on these two questions, and on its opening weekend, the answers were inconclusive.

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