When I was fifteen, I played Nora in the East Anchorage High School winter production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. No doubt I brought the same understanding and nuance to this role as I had to my performance as the Mayor of Whoville in Horton Hears a Who a few months earlier. The boy who played Nora’s husband Torvald was sixteen – with a shadow on his upper lip that, when emphasized with mascara, made him look very distinguished – and together we plumbed the depths of one of the most renowned and complex relationships in theatrical history.
In Ibsen’s drama, the young wife Nora forges her father’s signature and takes out a secret loan to pay for the treatment her deathly ill husband requires. After covertly saving Torvald’s life, she spends several years quietly repaying the loan by scrimping on household expenses. When he finds out what she has done, Torvald is outraged, and – ignoring that she saved his life— he declares that she has disgraced him and is morally unfit to raise their children. Realizing that he never has – and never will – regard her as more than a doll/child, Nora hands back her wedding ring and walks out the door, slamming the door behind her and leaving her comfortable, bourgeois life for an uncertain, probably grim future. (You can see why it was a thrilling piece to perform at fifteen – forgery, false accusations, noble self-sacrifice, and door slamming!)
When it premiered in 1879, that slam was heard round the world. Audiences were shocked. Shocked! How dare Ibsen question the appropriateness of men lording it over the little ladies? How could Nora possibly be a decent, moral person if she wants recognition as a thinking human being, and not just as the little wife and mother? What would keep the chaos at bay if men weren’t The Deciders? Well. Lo, all these years later, we still haven’t satisfactorily answered these questions.
A Doll’s House, Part 2 is Lucas Hnath’s puckish riposte to Ibsen. Part 2 starts fifteen years after the Grand Slam with a knock at the very same door. It’s a playful, feisty philosophic sparring match, testing propositions about marriage, power, gender roles, and fairness. The delight of this play is that all four characters are bracingly honest, nimble thinkers, equally capable of lobbing trenchant bombs of wit. Into this fizzy brew of Ibsen’s provocative notions, Lucas Hnath adds a new, highly combustible ingredient: self-actualization. Nora left her family so that she might become her best self, leading her best life – a distinctly 21st Century notion. All fine and dandy, but at what cost and to whom? She returns to discover that her lofty goals are not universally shared, and when the chickens come home to roost there’s a lot more poop to contend with.
I’m delighted to be spending time again with Nora and Torvald (and now Anne Marie and Emmy, too). At fifteen, I may have missed some of Ibsen’s finer philosophical points, so it is delicious to wrestle now with Lucas Hnath’s marvelous follow up. Like Ibsen, Hnath asks big questions about what we owe to each other and to ourselves – questions that apply equally in our private and social lives. If you are as weary as I am of the infantile blurting that passes for public discourse lately, I hope you’ll find it refreshing to hear adults engaged in passionate, articulate, persuasive debate.