Nora Helmer may have been the first woman in dramatic history to leave her family for the single life, but she certainly wasn’t the last. Henrik Ibsen’s infamous antiheroine caused quite a stir by slamming the door on her marriage when A Doll’s House premiered in Copenhagen in 1879. One hundred forty years later, in the midst of feminism’s fourth wave, Nora’s actions — though surely more common — remain controversial. The passage of time hasn’t changed the fact that leaving one’s children is still largely seen as an unforgivably selfish act.
How did Nora’s children fare without her? And did her husband, Torvald, ever get over the heartbreak of discovering just how deeply unhappy his wife was? Playwright Lucas Hnath attempts to get at some answers in A Doll’s House, Part 2, set 15 years after the original, when Nora returns. New Mexico Actors Lab begins its 2019 season with a production of the play, opening Thursday, May 9.
Hnath’s Tony Award-winning sequel, which premiered on Broadway in 2017, asks whether it is possible to truly love someone whose inner life you can’t comprehend, and explores what we must give up or embrace in order to find personal fulfillment.
In A Doll’s House, Nora borrowed money without Torvald’s permission — in violation of Norway’s patriarchal laws — to keep her family financially solvent during a crisis. When she was caught, it jeopardized her husband’s personal and professional reputation, causing the buried tensions in their marriage to come to the fore. Nora’s misery was more complicated than simply being beholden to sexist legalities, however. She believed that her very personality had been dictated by societal expectations and that her true self was invisible to her husband.
In Part 2, Nora has shucked off the external oppression and has become a writer of autobiographical novels. Her books are so controversial that she is facing judicial consequences for her audacity, and she needs Torvald’s help to get out of trouble. He is still angry at her for leaving, though not for the reasons she assumed.
“Once she found her voice, she could think of things she wanted that had nothing to do with what anyone else wanted,” said Leslie Harrell Dillen, who plays Nora. “That’s just a basic thing — especially for women — that is still a challenge.”
Director Robert Benedetti said that while living up to societal expectations applies to men as well as women, “it’s a more difficult problem for women because the voices in your head are usually voices of authority. And in the case of women in our society, that would tend to be a male voice.”
Nicholas Ballas, who plays Torvald, said it is a challenge to be in the role of a vilified man. “The historical context from the original play does not paint Torvald very kindly. My path for this character is that I’m a nice guy who is just making bad choices. I don’t think Torvald is intrinsically evil or horrible. I think it diminishes Nora if we don’t see how they did connect at one point or another.”
Audience members don’t need to be intimately familiar with A Doll’s House to enjoy Part 2, because Nora’s sense of dissatisfaction has become archetypal, showing up in innumerable movies and television shows, both comedic and dramatic, including His Girl Friday (1940), An Unmarried Woman (1978), Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), and Under the Tuscan Sun (2003). Themes of feminist awakening were explored for seven seasons on the AMC TV show Mad Men, which was set in 1960s Manhattan, but presented its plots and characters through a contemporary lens of political and social understanding. A similar conceit exists in A Doll’s House, Part 2. Though it is set in the 1890s, and the actors are costumed in period attire (designed by Cheryl Odom), the language is mostly modern and the overarching sensibility is imbued with 14 decades of knowledge both of feminism and psychology. Another modern twist: Benedetti said the black-box set will be arranged tennis-court style, with the audience sitting on both sides of the stage. One side will function as a metaphorical jury box.
Like Mad Men, A Doll’s House, Part 2 also takes up issues of class differences that can limit or expand a woman’s possibilities. Anne Marie (Kat Sawyer) is the nanny who was left behind: She all but raised Nora and then stuck around the Helmers’ home to raise Nora’s children at the expense of her own. Unlike Nora, Anne Marie was already a working woman, and she doesn’t understand why anyone would leave the protection and comfort of marriage for an ephemeral idea of freedom.
“Anne Marie gave up her life, and Nora gave up her life,” Sawyer said, “but they wind up in the same position of power. They’re both saying the same things, just coming from different places.”
Emmy (Alix Hudson), Nora’s adult daughter, is the most pragmatic of the lot, a young woman who is simultaneously traditional and forward-thinking in her outlook. She claims neither emotional attachment to Nora nor any bitterness. She has plans for her life and does not want Nora’s homecoming to put her future at risk.
“The first time I read [the play], I thought she was harboring something, like she was going to have a breakdown at some point that shatters the cold remove, but she doesn’t,” Hudson said. “That’s her essence. It’s the way she’s been raised, and it’s the way she’s constructed her own reality in these very unorthodox circumstances, given the time.” ◀
▼ New Mexico Actors Lab presents A Doll’s House, Part 2, by Lucas Hnath, directed by Robert Benedetti
▼ 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 9, with performances through May 26; 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays
▼ Opening reception, Friday, May 10; audience talk-back follows the Sunday matinee on May 12
▼ Teatro Paraguas, 3205 Calle Marie