An eighteenth-century heroine revived for modern audiences
This was the door slam heard around the world. In 1879, Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House premiered in Copenhagen, Denmark, to rave reviews and a sold-out performance run. Nora Helmer is living the perfect nineteenth century life — she’s married to a wealthy man with three young children and a household staff — but she is deeply unhappy. She despises the way her husband, Torvald, treats her like his plaything. The play ends with Nora leaving Torvald. She explains that she has never felt like her own person, and before she has a duty to her husband or her children she has a duty to herself. Nora gives back her wedding ring and her house keys and leaves, slamming the door behind her. At the time, Nora’s decision caused an uproar across Europe. Critics claimed Ibsen was disrespecting the sanctity and holiness of marriage. In a well-known quote, Ibsen justified his play, saying “a woman cannot be herself in modern society,” because it is “an exclusively male society, with laws made by men and with prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine standpoint.”
Lucas Hnath’s contemporary play A Doll’s House, Part 2 imagines what would happen if Nora returned fifteen years later. The play premiered at South Coast Repertory in April 2016 and opened on Broadway a year later. Hnath’s play opens with a knock on the door, the same door Nora slammed 15 years ago. Nora has returned. Slowly, it is revealed why she is back: Torvald never filed their divorce. Nora has been working as a writer, taking lovers, signing contracts, all things that are illegal for a married woman to do. It is easier for men to file a divorce, so Nora has returned to ask Torvald to file the divorce.
In a tight 95-minute script, Hnath revives and expands the world created by Ibsen. Artist Repertory Theatre’s Artistic Director Dámaso Rodríguez, in the playbill, describes the play as “irreverent, timely, and funny.” He said “Part 2 was a twenty-first century response and evaluation of how much and how little has changed for women in the century that has passed since Hora’s meaningful exit from the stage.” When Rodríguez went to see the production on Broadway, he said “it was exhilarating to discover that the play was taking on the form of a public debate, with the actors not quite breaking the invisible fourth wall between the stage and the audience, but somehow it felt as if we as an audience were being included in the dialogue, serving the character as a sounding board for their points of view. Sometimes we laughed at their turn-of-the-twentieth century naivete or gasped embarrassingly at their foresight.”
Helmed by director Luan Schooler, the Artist Repertory Theatre has produced a must see production of A Doll’s House, Part 2. Linda Alper’s Nora was all at once tender and hard, giving and selfish, caring and cold. Michael Mendelson made Torvald sympathetic with his understanding and made him master of moments of stillness and silence. Alper and Mendelson played off each other perfectly. Together, they wove a complicated and nuanced narrative in which it was impossible to pick a side or judge either character. Sets by Megan Wilkerson, costumes by Robert Brewer-Walling, lights by Blanca Forzan, and sound by Phil Johnson complete the world. Reed’s Professor of English and Humanities Pancho Savery served as the dramaturg. The production was stunning and thrumming with energy, as Savery attested: “the play ends not with the loud sound of a slam, but with the softer sound of a shut, a modest step in the right direction.”
A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath; directed by Luan Schooler; Artist Repertory Theatre; January 27–March 3; starring Linda Alper, Michael Mendelson, Vana O’Brien, and Barbie Wu.