When we last saw Nora Helmer in Henrik Ibsen’s proto-feminist masterwork, “A Doll’s House,” the Norwegian housewife had just walked out on her husband and children with what George Bernard Shaw famously dubbed “the door slam heard round the world.” Stuck in a suffocating and loveless sham of a marriage, she was fleeing her “doll-child” existence in order to discover her true self. Now, following a persistent knock on the same door, Nora has returned 15 years later to the home and family she left behind.
That’s the intriguing premise behind “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” playwright Lucas Hnath’s wry, inspired sequel to the seismic 1879 classic. The play imagines what happened to the revolutionary character and her family in the years since her abrupt exit, an action that shocked late-19th-century audiences, led to calls for an altered ending, and got the play’s real translation banned in Britain.
Hnath’s “Part 2” was staged on Broadway in 2017 starring Laurie Metcalf, earned critical acclaim and eight Tony nominations, and now stands as the most produced play in the country this season, according to American Theatre magazine. The Huntington Theatre Company is presenting the play Jan. 4-Feb. 3, in a co-production with Berkeley (Calif.) Repertory Theatre, where it ran last fall.
For 139 years, people have speculated on what became of Nora. Hnath has said that when he would ask friends and colleagues, most assumed she ended up destitute or turned to prostitution or grueling factory work, given the options for unmarried women at the time. But Hnath envisions a very different future for Nora. She’s reinvented herself as a successful author of women’s literature, including a novel that closely resembles her own personal story, but has stirred controversy and works under a pseudonym. “That revelation starts the engine of the play going really fast from the top,” says Les Waters, who’s directing this production.
Despite a flourishing career and financial fortune, Nora isn’t as free as she thought. It seems that her husband, Torvald, never filed their divorce papers, and a vindictive judge is now threatening to expose the truth. That would mean scandalous legal trouble (since a married woman at that time couldn’t sign contracts or conduct business) and ruin everything she has fought so hard for.
Nora’s reckoning with her estranged family is structured as a series of fraught confrontations with three characters — Torvald (John Judd), who faces off with his wife about the reasons for the dissolution of their marriage and why she didn’t stay and work it out; her self-possessed daughter, Emmy (Nikki Massoud), who rejects her mother’s views on marriage and questions her selfishness; and Anne Marie (Nancy E. Carroll), who raised Nora’s children in her absence and tries to make Nora see her class privilege.
In Ibsen’s time, it was a shocking act for a woman to leave her family, and Mary Beth Fisher, who plays Nora, says it’s still difficult for people to imagine now. In her research, Fisher was reminded that women in the 19th century had little power in society and that their independence came at a high price. A man could divorce his wife for any reason at all. But if a woman wanted a divorce, Fisher says, “she had to prove outrageous conduct on her husband’s part.”
“Audiences will cheer Nora on and think, you know, I’m going to support this woman who needs to find her own unique voice but can’t do it within the framework of this marriage,” says Waters, the director. “But what is difficult is that the path she chooses to find her own authenticity means that she leaves her children, and I think that is a very complicated issue for a lot of people.”
“It’s difficult to walk in Nora’s shoes,” Fisher says, “because you feel the audience judging the character constantly throughout the play.”
Indeed, while Ibsen’s Nora is viewed as one of the great female stage characters of all time, she’s still a deeply flawed heroine in Hnath’s rendering. “She’s got lots of foibles. But that’s what makes her delicious — and fun to laugh at,” Fisher says. “She’s very narcissistic and self-aggrandizing. But she’s also vulnerable — and extremely funny in her obliviousness to the wreckage she left behind. And one of the joys of the play is that every character gets to take their shots at her.”
To be sure, all of them have grievances to air about the damage Nora did, but Nora is determined to make them see her viewpoints on marriage, freedom, self-fulfillment, gender roles, and her reasons for leaving.
“I don’t think you can watch this play without struggling in your own seat with what you think,” Fisher says. “A lot of people feel that their sense of who is ‘right’ or not shifts throughout the play — sometimes two or three times in the same scene. And that’s fantastic!”
While “Doll’s House, Part 2” may be a play heady with ideas and arguments, Fisher argues that it doesn’t dampen the emotions in Hnath’s writing. “What prevents the play from being a dry form of ideas is that we all dig deep down into the reality of what’s at stake in the hearts of these people,” Fisher says. “There is raw emotional stuff going on that triggers explosively funny moments and also very painful and familiar moments. We’re trying to create real human beings rather than just mouthpieces of a debate.”
It helps that the language of Hnath’s play is utterly contemporary and free-flowing, which sets up an intriguing and wry contrast with the constricting period-specific clothes. “You can’t distance yourself from it if people are speaking the same language you do and are calling each other out in the same way we do now,” Fisher says.
Indeed, while Ibsen’s play was written well over a century ago, the issues, ideas, and arguments it raises are still remarkably resonant as evidenced by the revelations and activism of the #MeToo movement. “What contemporizes [the plays] is the fact that even though many laws may have changed,” Fisher says, “the attitudes and the expectations toward women and the role a woman plays in a family, in a marriage, in the world, and in politics are still constantly challenged.”
During the play’s run in Berkeley, audience emotions were fraught as the nation was gripped by the contentious, high-stakes hearings for then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and the riveting testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, who accused him of sexual assault. “In a play about gender politics, gender roles, and women’s fight for equality, which of course is still ongoing and was really magnified during that time, we would hear giant eruptions of laughter but also quiet sniffles,” Fisher says. “So it was hitting people in a very profound way.”
A Doll’s House, Part 2
Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company, Huntington Avenue Theatre, Jan. 4-Feb. 3. Tickets from $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org