Watch a scene from ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’
There are only four characters in ”A Doll’s House, Part 2,” Lucas Hnath’s 2017 Broadway hit, in which the heroine — who famously walks out on her husband and children at the end of Henrik Ibsen’s feminist classic — walks back in again 15 years later: Nora and Torvald Helmer; their daughter, Emmy; and their maid and nanny, Anne Marie.
But a new version by On the Verge Theatre, which specializes in site-specific productions in Central Kentucky, can be said to have a fifth character: the Helmer home itself, receiving a bravura performance here by the Brand-Barrow House, the handsome 19th-century mansion on Fourth Street that serves as the headquarters of the Episcopal Diocese of Lexington.
Like the Ibsen original, which the company mounted in the same space in May, “Part 2” fits snugly into the Brand-Barrow House’s porch, entrance hall, central staircase and spacious parlor, with the audience — confined to 26 people seated in chairs, mere feet or even inches from the actors — ushered from room to room as required by the action.
“Performing a play in a house is very different from doing it in a theater,” says the show’s director, Ave Lawyer. “You have the solidity of the architecture — when there’s a scene happening in the parlor, the actors actually enter the parlor. The audience feels a certain sense of being in the room, being present. They’re included in the action, as opposed to sitting back in the dark and watching it from afar.”
It feels different for the actors as well. “It’s more existing than playing, because the life of the play isn’t just in your imagination — it’s physically there in your world, in the audience’s world,” says Rachel Lee Rogers, who plays Nora. “If Torvald is coming down the stairs, you hear him coming down the stairs. He’s not just coming in from a black void. That’s really special, as an actor, to get to do that.”
On the Verge has its roots in the living room of Lexington actress Joan Rue, where a group of local theater folk had gathered just over a decade ago to read plays with strong roles for women — including “The Little Foxes,” Lillian Hellman’s crackling 1939 drama about a Southern dynasty locked in a vicious battle over control of the family business.
“I remember sitting on the floor with the actors saying the most revolting, horrendous, cruel things to each other in a small space,” Lawyer says. “And I thought, wow, I’m loving this — it’s so dangerous! I would love it if an audience could experience the play in the way I’m experiencing it right now — in the middle of it, with it going on all around me. That makes it far more exciting and visceral.”
After a search, Lawyer and her friends secured Lexington’s historic Bodley-Bullock House for a site-specific “Little Foxes,” where sharing close quarters with the performers electrified audiences in 2008. In one performance, at the point at which Oscar Hubbard (Paul Thomas) stage-slapped his wife Birdie (Joan Rue), a man in the audience was so appalled to see a woman struck in his presence that he leapt out of his chair to intervene, only to be pulled back by his wife.
Similar passions flared the following year when On the Verge leapfrogged Gratz Park for a production of “Another Part of the Forest,” Hellman’s prequel to “Little Foxes,” at the Hunt-Morgan House.
Over the years, the company has commandeered a number of nontraditional venues, including the Milward Funeral Home (for Jeffrey Hatcher’s “Three Viewings” in 2011), Après Vous Boutique (for Nora Ephron’s “Love, Loss and What I Wore” in 2013) and Central Christian Church (for Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” in 2014).
“Audiences have commented that they like the experience of being a fly on the wall, of being-there-but-not-there, of feeling invisible as actors brush right past them but don’t acknowledge their presence,” Lawyer says. “They also really enjoy the shifts in perspective that happen when they follow the action from room to room, viewing the action from varying vantage points, as opposed to from a single fixed position.”
Perhaps the most eerily perfect match of play and venue was On the Verge’s 2016 production of Anton Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard” at Ward Hall in Georgetown. “My husband took me to a Christmas candlelight open house there once, with people dressed in Dickensian fashion,” Lawyer recalls about the Greek mansion. “... the house had something magical about it.”
The story of the play — about an aristocratic but impoverished Russian family forced to sell its ancestral estate to the son of former serf — turned out to be uncannily similar to the real-life history of Ward Hall. “If you substituted the abolition of slavery for the emancipation of the serfs, the two stories were identical,” Lawyer says. “You knew that the conversations in the play had happened in that house before. You just knew it.”
In “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” in which Nora must reckon with the sometimes heartbreaking fallout from her departure 15 years earlier, audiences who saw her slam the door of the Brand-Barrow House at the end of the earlier play will watch her step back, a bit nervously, over the same threshold a few steps away.
“You’re right there,” says Kevin Hardesty, who plays Torvald alongside Samantha Doane-Bates as Anne Marie and Tay Schultz as Emmy. “Even a whisper can be heard, a sidelong glance can be seen. There’s no thought of needing to push or project or gesture beyond the reality of the moment. And there’s a vulnerability that exists in the audience that might not be there in a 300-seat house where you’re in Row K and you can react or not. Here you’re a part of the action.”
“A Doll’s House, Part 2”
When: July 10-13; 18-20;25-27
Where: Brand-Barrow House, 203 E. Fourth Street, Lexington
Call: (859) 948-2762