Quote of the Day: A woman cannot be herself in the society of the present day, which is an exclusively masculine society, with laws framed by men and with a judicial system that judges feminine conduct from a masculine point of view. Henrik Ibsen, Norwegian playwright, author of A Doll’s House that inspired modern playwright Lucas Hnath to write A Doll’s House, Part 2. I think he did a good job of bringing the main character, Nora, back, stronger and bolder than ever, but with a need to reconnect. The entire play is a social commentary on marriage and women’s roles in society. Some ideas and practices have changed, thankfully, while others have not. Don’t we still judge a woman more harshly than a man for leaving her family?
Ibsen’s A Doll’s House first appeared in 1879, a reflection on a patriarchal society in Norway (and most of Europe and trickled into the USA) with Nora trying desperately to be a good wife. She does what she feels is right, but since it’s illegal for her to handle money, sign for a loan, and make arrangements for her household’s finances, she forges her father’s signature. When her husband Torvald finds out, he goes ballistic. He accuses her of criminal behavior, tells her she’s an unfit mother, and that she has no rights to him or their children, but he’ll stay married to her “for appearances” in society. When the debt is forgiven, and Torvald is no longer at risk of shame and ruin, he forgives Nora and tells her that everything will be alright now, that he’ll take care of her. She’s just “a little songbird” after all, helpless, frail, a woman. “There’s something endearing about a woman’s helplessness,” he says. Nora turns on him and tells them that what they have is not love, and certainly not a marriage. It’s a trap. That she’s not a real person with him and that she needs to go out and learn how to think for herself, to have the freedom to make her own choices. That’s when we hear “the door slam heard around the world,” as it’s called.
Playwright Lucas Hnath writes the potential sequel. What would happen if Nora returned, 15 years later, in need of something? We see her initial confrontation with Anne Marie the nurse who raised Nora’s children. Nora (Christina Baldwin) enters, unapologetic, a little subdued, and in need of proper papers to prove that she’s divorced and can manage her own money, and life. Anne Marie (Angela Timberman) looks at her with shock, wondering why she even bothered to step foot in that house again. Their dialogue is both humorous and cutting. “Where would your children be,” she asks Nora, “If I hadn’t been here to raise them?” Anne Marie also had to leave her own son to come to work for the Helmer’s, having freedom to earn her own money, at the sacrifice of her own family.
When Torvald (Steven Epp) enters, you could hear a pin drop. He walks right past Nora, not recognizing the well put together woman in front of him who was the fragile bird that left him 15 years ago. Despite being the overbearing, controlling, money hungry banker that he was, and probably still is, I found myself feeling sympathy for him, too. The character is well drawn from Hnath’s creation, and brought out fully formed by the brilliant Steven Epp. He’s still all about himself, yet, you feel his wounds and insecurities as well.
Then, Nora is confronted by her youngest child, Emmy (Megan Burns). As you’d suspect, she’s bitter and confused. She tells her mother, “I thought you were dead.” In fact, most people assumed as much. But, Nora is standing in front of us, very much alive. And, in the end, neither her existence, nor her name, can be so easily erased.
The Jungle Theater has assembled an incredible team with four of the finest actors in the Twin Cities. Under the direction of Joanie Schultz, they bring out the complex relationships and emotions of each character. I felt an emotional connection with each of them. At one point Nora explains where she’s been and what she’d done to survive, and thrive, outside of her marriage. She says that she had to go away for a while, alone, until all the voices in her head stopped, and she could finally hear her own voice. I identify with Nora.
The set (design by Chelsea M. Warren) of A Doll’s House, Part 2, looks, to me, like a pop-up book. Like you could press it down, fold it up, and take it with you. The only furniture is a scattering of a few chairs and two small tables near the door. I kept looking at the one that had a shorter leg, and thinking, that’s an interesting design. Although, the setting of the play is around 1896, they use some contemporary elements. You have period looking costumes (by Mathew J. Lefebvre), but with bold, modern colors, or a loosing of the restrictions, like when Torvald nearly tears himself apart in frustration with his wife. They also use projections and modern lighting (Marcus Dilliard) on the layered and yellowing walls, and include modern music (sound design by Sean Healey). All of this makes for an interesting juxtaposition of the past and present. It’s like they made a movie that came to life.
I highly recommend seeing A Doll’s House, Part 2 at the Jungle Theater, on stage through February 23, 2020. You can watch a fun recap of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in this video. Bring some folks who will discuss it with you afterwards. It really makes you think about life, marriage, relationships, women’s roles, money, society, and how far we’ve come and still need to go. I’d like to see it again, sometime, or get my hands on a script. This is one to study and reflect on.
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Journaling Prompt: What would you say to someone from your past, a relationship that faded, but never quite died? Would you be able to come to a place of reconciliation?