The door slam has echoed across nearly 150 years.
One of the most famous endings in the history of theater, the slam has concluded Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” since it debuted in 1879, marking Nora Helmer’s exit from her existence as a pampered wife and mother. Ibsen didn’t tell us what happened after Nora freed herself from a stifling life, but two new plays opening this weekend grapple with the aftermath of her decision.
As the title promises, Lucas Hnath’s comedy, “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” is a sequel, one that slyly begins with that slammed door reopening to reveal that Nora is back to see her family after 15 years away. The Jungle’s production, with Christina Baldwin as Nora, is directed by Joanie Schultz, who brings intimate knowledge of what we may now have to call “A Doll’s House, Part 1.” She directed Ibsen’s original last year in Texas.
“The thing that was surprising to me was how shocking her story still is to audiences,” Schultz said. “We’re watching her, in a Victorian dress, leave her husband and kids behind. You can only imagine how shocking it was back then but, as far as we have come, as far as equality in marriage has come and as much as we are in a very different time, we still carry some of those traditional views of husbands and wives.”
That’s probably why “A Doll’s House” and its progeny remain so popular. Ibsen’s play was produced at St. Paul’s James J. Hill House two years ago and was done by the Guthrie in 1996, as well as Gremlin Theatre in 2003. The Guthrie also produced Rebecca Gilman’s “Dollhouse,” a contemporary take on Nora’s tale, in 2010. One aspect of the play that echoes through all of these productions is how modern was the vision of Ibsen, who based Nora on a female friend.
“Part of what is so great about Nora is that she points to the future,” said Susan Brantly, a professor of Scandinavian literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She consulted with Hnath when he was writing “Part 2.”
Brantly notes that classic plays featuring women who might today be called feminists often end in suicide, as if there’s no other option.
“Strindberg’s ‘Miss Julie’ and Ibsen’s ‘Hedda Gabler,’ they’re misfits who end up taking their own lives. It’s ‘Hey, life sucks for women. End of story.’ Whereas Nora is a question mark. People have discussed it since the play came out,” Brantly said. “What ends up happening to her? The play is about possibilities, and I think that may be why it still persists and has been adapted in a number of cultures. It really does allow us to think about the future.”
Heather Raffo’s “Noura,” playing at the Guthrie through Feb. 16, examines “A Doll’s House” through a fresh cultural lens. Noura is an Iraqi-American woman who questions her identity and her relationship to her family. Raffo is reluctant to have her play defined by Ibsen’s, cautioning that it uses elements of “A Doll’s House” but is not an adaptation. In fact, she has some issues with Ibsen’s play.
“Nora says her thing. She leaves. We applaud. We love it. And I think that’s deeply problematic,” said Raffo, who identifies as Iraqi-American and has worked with refugees who escaped violent countries and homes. “I was in a room of women who had fled [relationships like Nora’s] and they all knew what post-Nora, post-door-slam was like. They had other things to say about how [things] work out once you slam the door.”
For a variety of reasons, Raffo is interested in how difficult it would be to leave a husband and children on the other side of that door.
“I was always upset about Nora Helmer because: What if you’re deeply attached to your kids? Then you have a drama, I think. And what if you want to take a feminist step forward? How do you leave them or take them with you?” Raffo asked, adding that she thinks many productions of Ibsen’s play make Nora’s decision too easy. “We can’t keep bringing ‘A Doll’s House’ onto our stages and saying, ‘This is what’s going on with women. This is a good feminist play.’ Women are mad. Women are in modern marriages and are having very different discussions, even with their super-progressive husbands, because they still feel like they’re not able to be their full selves.”
To make her play less “easy,” Raffo has conceived all the “Noura” characters as fractal versions of Nora, including the husband, whom Ibsen called Torvald and Raffo calls Tareq. Audiences will find Tareq more sympathetic than Ibsen’s Torvald. They may even like him more than his wife.
“He’s the most progressive man. He’s just Middle Eastern and he does say one thing [wrong], about wanting to stab her, in the middle of a fight. It’s a dig because he is hurt. Well, what marriage fight isn’t like that?” said Raffo, who counts her own husband, a journalist, as “super-progressive” but “I do still feel like I’m a small woman sometimes, and that’s not because of him. I want to have the fight. I want to figure it out. I want to love him through it and that’s what you’ll see on stage in ‘Noura.’ A really dynamic woman. And she’s the difficult one.”
Noura Who: By Heather Raffo. Directed by Taibi Magar. When: 7:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 1 p.m.. Sun., 7:30 p.m. Tue., 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wed., 7:30 p.m. Thu. Ends Feb. 16. Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St, Mpls. Tickets: $25-$79, 612-377-2224 or guthrietheater.org.
A Doll's House, Part 2
In “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” too, Torvald (played by Steven Epp) is given more dimension. Schultz noted, “At the end of the Ibsen, Nora has this big awakening and speaks to Torvald but he never gets to rebut. He gets sideswiped. So one thing Lucas imagines in this play is that Torvald has a lot to say to Nora after all those years.”
Torvald talks about marriage and how to make an institution that has been around for centuries work today, a topic Schultz expects to resonate with audiences.
“It’s a really fun play, but I also know we’re talking about something as personal as marriage. While we’re sitting next to our spouses at the theater, that can feel really threatening. These characters are going to say some things you’ll probably identify with,” she said.
That’s what Hnath wanted.
“The things that were debated and negotiated in ‘A Doll’s House’ are being debated and negotiated today,” he told a writer for Huntington Theatre Company when it did his play. “One of the first ideas that I had about ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’ is it’s a play about how much we’ve changed and how much we haven’t.”
“Noura’s” take on feminism and marriage gains even more complexity because the characters have left their homeland. Noura’s decision about whether to leave behind her husband and children is complicated by the fact that her take on feminism asserts that it’s not about striking out on your own but about carving a path for your community.
“When you want to take steps for your own well-being in a Nora Helmer kind of way, how do you take steps for all of your people? Your family?” asked Raffo, who said her play is more about asking those kinds of questions than answering them. “This play’s going to make [audiences] look at their own relationships, their own communities, their own secrets and ask, ‘How do we do this? How do we take our own next steps?’ ”
According to Brantly, Ibsen has triggered similar questions around the world for more than a century. Last semester, a Chinese student in a class that read “A Doll’s House” was startled to learn Ibsen was Norwegian.
“He said, ‘I thought Ibsen was Chinese because when we write his name, it is transposed into Chinese.’ Ibsen is terribly popular in China!” Brantly said. “It’s miraculous when you think about it. Ibsen was thinking about Norway, a small country at the end of Europe, and he wrote a very specific play. But it still speaks to all kinds of cultures all across the globe.”
A Doll’s House, Part 2 Who: By Lucas Hnath. Directed by Joanie Schultz. When: 7:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sun., 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Thu. Ends Feb. 23. Where: Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls. Tickets: $40-$50, 612-822-7063 or jungletheater.org.