By Janet Allen, Executive Artistic Director
Artists have been responding to classic works and creating sequels for eons, and yet it’s rare to encounter one where the sequel is every bit as thrilling and groundbreaking as the original. Thus is the case with A Doll’s House, Part 2, and one need look no farther than the listings of the regional theatres’ bills this season to see that many theatre professionals share that belief. The wonderful irony of A Doll’s House, Part 2 is that Lucas Hnath has fashioned a sequel that does not need its original to exist completely and wholly. He accomplishes that feat with ease and style, weaving the backstory of the characters into the forward movement of his new plot with apparent effortlessness. The accolade “expertly crafted” appears in many reviews, and is completely apparent in this play.
The play Hnath has responded to is an 1879 drama by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. At the time, A Doll’s House was groundbreaking enough to be banned in several countries; but it has since come to be taught and admired as the cornerstone of modern drama. In 2001, it was inscribed as a manuscript of historic value by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. In 2006, which marked the 100th anniversary of Ibsen’s death, it was the most produced play around the world.
A Doll’s House is revered among theatre professionals, feminists, and champions of social justice. Its ending is its claim to fame: Nora Helmer shockingly leaves her husband and young children to pursue a life of self-fulfillment, escaping the stifling confines of her gender role in late 19th century culture. Of course, this choice was considered horrifically controversial in its time. “The door slam heard around the world,” which signifies Nora’s departure from home and hearth and from gender stereotypes, has engendered many adaptations and revisions, but no successful sequels until this 2017 play by American Lucas Hnath.
Hnath’s play is loyal to the characters of the original and keeps the period setting, but uses a contemporary language idiom; this fusion creates a freshness that both surprises and leads us further into his purpose. In something like a four-handed fugue, he invites each of the characters to express their viewpoint on the problematic situation that brings them together; these varying perspectives are at once character cogent and also astonishing. Part legal thriller, part family drama, part exploration of gender roles both past and present, this play delivers much to discuss, as well as a superb experience in the theatre.
I am not a big fan of sequels, so much so that I declined several opportunities to see this on Broadway last season and didn’t read the reviews. But when the script was in my hand, I couldn’t put it down, and I was wholeheartedly committed to sharing it with our audiences from the minute I finished reading it.
One of the greatest delights of my job is being surprised—by audiences, by writers, by actors—but I wasn’t surprised by the amazing actors that clamored to be in this production. We are delighted to have brought them together on this wildly entertaining and thought-provoking work. Enjoy the ride.
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!
The IRT produces top-quality, professional theatre that engages, surprises, challenges and entertains people throughout their lifetimes, helping to build a vital and vibrant community.
Marketing Communications Manager
If you are interested in reviewing a production and would like to receive media passes please email us.