BY JAMES STILL, DIRECTOR
Which makes the most noise? The sound of a door slamming shut, or a knock on that same door 15 years later? For the people living in that house in Norway, both sounds signal enormous changes. This is where Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 begins—with Nora returning to the house she had once called home.
Within the course of the play we discover not only what happened to Nora after her scandalous domestic exit in 1879 when she left her husband and three small children, but we also discover what’s brought her back. Hnath doesn’t shy away from the thorny connection between choices and consequences; but he’s also too smart a writer to make his play simply about the burdens of responsibility and the need to face our monsters. These are serious issues, but somehow Mr. Hnath manages to tinge his play with an infectious glee. His characters are in pursuit of many things they can’t quite grasp—and they aren’t beyond making fools of themselves in the process—but they engage. That’s the fuel of this play: engagement against all odds. These are characters sharing spontaneous ideas, testing the ideas on the spot, and using whatever works to figure out what’s next. They do it without self-reverence, with humor and modern-day vernaculars. It is as though Nora’s hard-won liberation has liberated the very form of storytelling, as though she’s written her own play about her life—only to discover that she doesn’t know all the story. In fact, it’s not even all her story.
I remember vividly the first time I read A Doll’s House, Part 2 and felt a breathless restlessness. I laughed out loud. I was puzzled. I was under its spell. There is something beautifully poetic and practical about the story in Mr. Hnath’s play. Poetic because the language is rich and contemporary, and practical because these are characters with a very big problem to solve. The five scenes (which Mr. Hnath describes as “boxing rounds”) fight their way through the play’s core subjects: marriage and free agency; the tension between sacrifice and emancipation; and the price paid for pursuing our authentic selves. For me, part of the brilliance of the play is how, although it is a “Part 2,” it easily lives on its own, for its own reasons.
But what of Nora’s decision to return? There is something heartbreakingly human in the ways that we are unprepared for the unknown. Leaving can be an agonizing decision—even for the decider. And the return of someone who left can reignite grief and chaos for those who were left behind. Nora’s return makes it impossible for all four characters not to rage about the consequences of actions. Her return is as shocking as her dramatic exit 15 years ago—but now we are here to feel the flood of feelings that inevitably erupt, and to see how little it takes to undo the broken heart that has been stitched back together over time.
For me, directing is very much about preparation— but a peculiar kind of preparation that also intuits that the point of preparation is to be surprised. Rehearsals are a time of immense invention, repetition that’s something akin to breaking a secret code. My job is to be “first witness” to the ways the play becomes our production. The process I have with designers and actors is sacred to me— collaboration as action.
In January, the great poet Mary Oliver died, and I keep coming back to the last line of her poem “The Summer Day”: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / With your one wild and precious life?” All of the characters in A Doll’s House, Part 2 ponder that question differently, and the many answers they confront can be as funny as they are painful.
*Watch an interview with James Still and Executive Artistic Director Janet Allen here!
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