The Hippodrome’s first play of 2019 examines the institution of marriage through the eyes of a woman who revisits the family she once abandoned.
In 1879, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen created one of the greatest cliffhangers in theater history when he had an exasperated Nora Helmer leave her home and slam the door shut on her husband and three children in the closing scene of A Doll’s House.
The play defied the 19th-century notion that a woman’s place was in the home and sparked controversy wherever the play was performed.
Thanks to modern playwright Lucas Hnath, however, we now know what became of Nora.
Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2, opening Friday night at the Hippodrome Theatre, picks up 15 years after Ibsen’s story ends. Someone is knocking, then pounding, on the front door of a manor home.
A longtime housekeeper/nanny named Anne Marie properly answers the door before doing a double-take on the visitor wearing a fashionable stole and carrying a large handbag.
“A lot of people thought you were dead!” Anne Marie tells the woman.
The woman is Nora, the same woman who had slammed that door shut on her husband and family in A Doll’s House.
“I’m not the same person who walked out that door,” Nora proclaims. “I’m a very different person.”
In fact, Nora is now a novelist. Her bestselling book chronicled her failed marriage. But now she has to ask the husband she abandoned for a huge favor, and the now-timid Torvald Helmer is not all that eager to comply.
“Back in the day, A Doll’s House was revolutionary,” said director Charlie Mitchell, an associate professor with the UF School of Theatre + Dance. “For a woman to walk out on her life and not just her husband but her children, it was called ‘a door slam heard all around the world.’
“How interesting to see what happens when she comes back and how these characters still have so much unfinished business.”
Hnath, an Orlando native, has a knack for writing plays that challenge established institutions and beliefs. In The Christians, which the Hippodrome produced last spring, Hnath has a fundamentalist preacher question the existence of hell, sending his flock into a fury.
In A Doll’s House, Part 2, Hippodrome newcomer Tess Hogan plays the newly empowered Nora, who never leaves the stage during the 95-minute, one-act play.
In one scene, Nora delivers a monologue about marriage that would make any married couple in the audience squirm at least a little bit.
“Marriage is cruel and destroys women’s lives,” she tells Anne Marie (Sara Morsey). “In the future, … marriage will be a thing of the past.”
In a bit of irony, V Craig Heidenreich, Hogan’s real-life husband, plays the tortured Torvald. The other actor in A Doll’s House, Part 2 is MaRah Williams, who plays the estranged couple’s sweet-natured but cunning daughter, Emmy.
Williams last performed on the Hipp’s mainstage as a teenage soccer player in The Wolves. Heidenreich performed recently as Elder Jay in The Christians. He also directed Ripcord.
Morsey, a member of the Hippodrome Acting Company (with Heidenreich), starred as Abby in Ripcord and most recently performed in the Hipp’s A Christmas Carol.
Mitchell is also a veteran of the Hippodrome as a writer/director (Snow Queen) and as a performer (Let the Right One In, The Legend of Georgia McBride).
Mitchell said audiences don’t have to be familiar with Ibsen’s original work to appreciate Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2.
“You understand right away what happened in the past,” he said.
During Wednesday’s opening preview performance of A Doll’s House, Part 2, seven students from Diane Steiner’s 12th-grade English honors class at Eastside High School were glued to every line of dialogue. They had already read Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and watched a movie based on the play.
Senior Daisha Allen, 18, said she enjoyed how Hnath picked up the story of Nora and Torvald.
“I think it was amazing the emotions that they shared,” she said. “It relates to realistic problems that happen in marriages today. Our generation can understand what’s going on without being told what’s happening.”
Steiner said A Doll’s House, Part 2 is an “engrossing” piece of theater.
“What makes the original play so revolutionary for the time period is that she walks out on her husband and children in order to find out who she is,” Steiner said.
“What I loved about the new version by Hnath is that he gives us a new perspective of the characters of Nora and Torvald. It gave me new ideas about analyzing the play. It was interesting to hear where the daughter was coming from after being abandoned by her mother.”
Don and Cherrie Bell, a married couple from Gainesville, laughed nervously during some scenes of A Doll’s House, Part 2. Cherrie said the play is relevant in this age of “disposable” marriages.
“I loved it because it points out the truth about relationships — they’re not easy!” she said.
Bell then pointed out that her parents and her in-laws both recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversaries, proving that — unlike Nora and Torvald — you work through your problems rather than run away from them.
Don Bell said A Doll’s House, Part 2 is engaging because it examines the dynamics of a failed marriage.
“Each party in the marriage has to have their own voice, otherwise they get wrapped up in the other person’s life, and that results in unhappiness and resentment,” he said. “You can see that portrayed throughout the play. It was a learning experience for me.”
— Noel Leroux
A Doll’s House, Part 2
25 SE 2nd Place
Gainesville, FL 32601
Box office: 352.375.4477
Performances: Tuesday 7 p.m., Wednesday 7 p.m., Thursday 7 p.m., Friday 8 p.m., Saturday 5 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. and Sunday 2 p.m. (through Feb. 3.)
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