In 1879, when feminist Nora Helmer – the main character in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House – slammed the front door and walked out on her husband and family, it is generally agreed that she opened another door, to the start of modern drama.
Ibsen’s play ended there, but what happened to Nora afterwards, as she tried to forge a life as a single woman in a Norwegian society whose laws and customs were stacked against her gender?
That is what contemporary playwright Lucas Hnath explores in his audacious sequel, A Doll’s House, Part 2, showing through March 10 at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre.
Hnath’s play is steeped in the misogynist mores of the late 19th century as well as today. Either way, Carol Halstead – who plays Nora in the Maltz production – doubts that the character had a bright future. “No, I think it’s really up in the air,” she says. “You certainly wonder, you hope, but given the time period, given what the social picture was, you’re nervous for what will come.”
Although Nora’s fate seemed bleak, Hnath’s sequel is a comedy. Sort of.
“I don’t know that I would label it straight comedy,” cautions Halstead. “It is a very human-wrought story, like Chekhov. It has real emotion and real comedic aspects. But it’s not a knee-slapper.”
“It’s a comedy in the traditional classical sense of what comedy is,” adds J. Barry Lewis, the Maltz’s go-to guy to direct its non-musicals. “The playwright has put these characters in a very unique position that is absurd, and which leads to a comedic response. Hnath keeps talking about knocking people off their pilings, their foundation. So we are laughing at the human condition, the human response to a set of givens that are somewhat bizarre.”
“In the same vein, what makes it that much more piquant or delicious, is how Lucas Hnath has brought in so much contemporary vernacular,” says Paul Carlin, who plays Nora’s estranged husband, Torvald. “From the beginning to all the way through, it continued to jar me.” That, Carlin feels, is exactly Hnath’s intent. “To knock us off our balance. Sometimes that comedy creeps in where you’re not thinking comedy.”
Although Hnath’s sequel can be seen independently of Ibsen’s play, how important is it for theatergoers to have an awareness of the original work to appreciate Part 2?
“It’s not,” responds Halstead. “It’s enriching on a certain level, but this play gives you the basic information that you need. If you knew all the details of what happened beforehand, you would have a richer appreciation of things they are talking about, but it’s definitely not necessary.”
Still, the Maltz is offering a free crash course in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and the social climate of that earlier time, prior to each performance.
“I think it’s important that we understand the time period,” says Lewis. “What were women’s rights, that they did or didn’t have at that time? There are four or five basic truths that we will focus on: A woman could not own property. A woman could not be a force in the government. The moment that she was married, she had to move from the jurisdiction of a father to the jurisdiction of a husband. And the husband had all rights to her money and her personage. He could say what she could and could not do outside of the home. The limitations of the woman at the time in Norway were extreme.”
According to Hnath, Nora has spent the 15 years since her door-slamming exit writing books and giving lectures, enjoying the freedoms a single woman had over a married woman. But the reason she returns to Torvald’s home is that she learns he never filed for divorce from her, nullifying all contracts and transactions she initiated over these years.
“If you were a single lady in that age, you could get these rights. You could sign contracts,” explains Lewis. “But as long as you were married, the man was the king of the castle.”
Because audience sympathies in A Doll’s House are with Nora, Torvald is often depicted as the villain of the play. Understandably, actor Carlin does not see it that way. “No, not at all,” he says. “One of the things I love about this play is there really is no villainy, no saintliness. These are people doing the best they can with what they’ve been given, with what they know, how they were brought up. Which ain’t too much different from right now.”
Carlin and Halstead agree that Part 2 is thought-provoking theater, that Hnath asks more questions than he answers. “He’s revealing what is, but I don’t think he’s answering the question. He’s introducing two points of view that seem completely at odds,” says Halstead.
“I think it is delightful to hear somebody say an opinion that you have. And then somebody says the opposite opinion and it kind of stimulates your brain. I’m sure people will be walking to their cars going, ‘Well, I think this …” and “Well, I don’t think that.” And a discussion arises that lasts all the way home.”
A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Rd., Jupiter. Through Sunday, March 10. $60-$90. Call 561-575-2223 or visit www.jupitertheatre.org.