The most powerful moments in A Doll’s House and A Doll’s House, Part 2 are not words. It’s a slam and a knock.
When Nora Helmer slammed the door on her seemingly idyllic marriage at the end of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in 1879, audiences argued about gender roles in Victorian society. With Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2, those same gender issues come into contemporary focus as Nora knocks on the same door she slammed 15 years earlier. Now those powerful moments of the classic and its modern sequel play out concurrently at WaterTower Theatre in Addison and Stage West in Fort Worth.
Ibsen’s Nora Helmer is as iconic as Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In an era when Norwegian women lacked financial and social independence, Nora forges a signature to obtain a loan to save the life of her ill husband, Torvald. For years, she saves to pay off the secret debt, but when Torvald discovers Nora’s clandestine action, he chastises her. Realizing her husband sees her as a doll, Nora leaves. In Hnath’s sequel, Nora returns to the home, confronting the past and asking for an awkward favor.
Initially, Joanie Schultz, WaterTower Theatre’s artistic director, wanted to produce both shows so audiences could see the shows in context with each other. “If you’ve seen her walk out the door, then watching her knock on it and walk in is more amazing,” Schultz said.
Realizing producing both shows was not financially viable, Schultz reached out to Dana Schultes, Stage West’s executive producer. A Doll’s House, Part 2 is 2018’s most produced regional show and Stage West was one of many local theaters attempting to secure performance rights.
“Stage West held out for the rights to be released until the very end, even delaying finalizing our season a month past our planned date. By that time, we already knew that WaterTower was producing A Doll’s House, and Joanie and I had talked about collaborating over the two shows if Stage West were granted the rights. Once it was official, we moved Stage West’s originally planned summertime run to the fall so that it could coincide with WaterTower’s part 1,” Schultes explained.
With the timing of the shows coordinated, Schultz tackled adapting the show into a 90-minute production with no intermission. As she examined Ibsen’s later drafts, she realized the playwright made Torvald extremely oppressive because audiences of that era would automatically empathize with him and would not understand Nora’s decision to leave. She also recalled her experience of teaching the play at the University of Chicago and how her male students identified with Torvald and society’s pressure to be ideal providers.
In her adaptation, Torvald’s oppression is more nuanced, taking the form of playful dismissiveness. “It really made me relook at the play in a lens that I think Ibsen meant it, which is that society’s rules for us and the roles they cast us in can be oppressive to all of us,” Schultz said. “The problem is that the relationship is not real, that they are playing out their roles instead of being actual humans with each other.”
Nora manipulates society’s rules until she realizes her husband does not value her as an intelligent human. “Nora is good at working the system. She’s beautiful, she’s good at the wifey things so the system works for her. When the system works for you, I think it’s harder to see the system is wrong. Nora is waking up to something that is systematic,” Schultz said.
In a sequel infused with comedy, Nora returns as a successful writer with modern views of gender roles. “A Doll’s House, Part 2 is a modern continuation of the conversation about gender inequality that Nora began just minutes before she walked out the door in 1879. Ibsen’s Nora left home in search of her voice in a time when women were legally and socially considered inferior to the male counterparts and in this sequel, we get to hear that strikingly relevant voice loud and clear,” Clare Shaffer, the show’s director, said.
Nora’s awakening is complete, but Torvald is still trying to understand. “In Part 2, her views have matured and expanded beyond a critique of traditional marital values to include thoughts on subjects including polyamory, the epidemic of mansplaining and gender performativity. She has progressed from discovering gender inequality to understanding and trying to combat it, giving the sequel a bolder and far more grounded protagonist,” Shaffer said. “Torvald, while he has grown slightly more self-aware in the 15 dramatic years between the original and the sequel, still finds it impossible to imagine a world where men and women are equal. Despite his assertions that he is a different man and can now see more clearly the flaws in their marriage, Torvald’s male privilege has deep roots.”
It’s a contradiction a modern audience recognizes in the era of #MeToo. “The questions she raises in the sequel about inherent power dynamics in relationships between men and women – and the impact they have on everyone involved – are piercingly relevant today, as women continue to advocate for equal treatment in the workplace, in the home and everywhere in between,” Shaffer said.
Audiences can spend a full day with Nora on November 3, with a matinee of A Doll’s House and a talkback at WaterTower Theatre and a pre-show dinner and evening performance of A Doll’s House, Part 2 at Stage West. “It’s the closest thing we have in theater to binge-watching.” Schultz said.
A Doll’s House at WaterTower Theatre runs through November 4. Learn more: https://watertowertheatre.org/
A Doll’s House, Part 2 at Stage West runs October 25 – November 25. Learn more: http://stagewest.org/