The Women of APT Talk About Why Ibsen’s "A Doll’s House" and its Sequel Matter
Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen shocked European audiences at the end of the 19th century with his play, A Doll’s House. In this classic domestic drama, Ibsen vividly portrays the limited legal and personal options available to women at the time. He also introduces viewers to a completely new kind of heroine — one who defies societal expectations by leaving her family to pursue her own goals.
Since that time, many other writers have speculated about what happened to Nora after she slammed the door at the end of the play. But none captured the audience’s imagination like Lucas Hnath’s 2017 A Doll’s House, Part 2. Set 15 years after Nora declared her independence from the men in her life, it’s a reckoning that allows each of the characters in the original to explore the consequences and results of her actions. After a successful run on Broadway and eight Tony nominations, the play has swept through regional theaters. This summer, it finally arrives on a Wisconsin stage.
As the second half of American Players Theatre’s season approaches, the company will give its audience a double treat — the canonical A Doll’s House — followed closely by the state premiere of the sequel, both produced in the indoor Touchstone Theatre. This two-play series is similar to last season’s pairing of The Recruiting Officer and Our Country’s Good, which uses a production of the first play as a central plot point. Audiences didn’t need to see both shows, but linking the two in one season was a delight.
When artistic director Brenda DeVita read about the sequel’s premiere on Broadway two years ago, she immediately flew to New York to see it. “I’m a huge fan of A Doll’s House,” she says. “I’ve been waiting for the right time to include it in our season, and for the cast to reveal itself. Celebrating our 40th season, I knew it was time. Then when I saw the Hnath, I thought this could really be something.” DeVita will direct A Doll’s House, Part 2.
Like many other viewers, DeVita had her own fantasy about what happened to Nora. “I was really curious about what this play had to say. I’m so taken with the continuation of Nora’s story because the act of a woman leaving her children to strike out on her own is so devastating. The circumstances are so extreme. This woman’s need for self determination, to claim her own life and pursue her own needs, is both primary and such a revolutionary idea.”
Although none of the cast members overlap in the two plays, the same design team will work on both productions to ensure visual and stylistic continuity. Andrew Boyce will provide scenic design, and APT newcomer Raquel Adorno is the costume designer for the two shows.
“We’re actually using the same house for parts one and two,” says DeVita. “The structure is the same but the interiors are different. And while the original play is very rooted in its time period, A Doll’s House Part 2 has a much more modern feel. The vernacular is now, but the aesthetic of the period also has to be respected, so the traditional set and costumes include some contemporary gestures.”
Core company members Kelsey Brennan and Colleen Madden are playing the two Noras, separated by 15 years. “Just like Shakespeare, when you revisit these plays that have been around for generations, you inevitably find something new,” says Brennan, who plays the younger version of Nora. “This play is going to ask really hard, specific questions about gender roles and audiences will have to grapple with that.”
Brennan says she was struck by the story’s timeliness while preparing for the role. “Yes, the world has changed a lot since it was written. But in a lot of ways, it hasn’t changed that much,” she says. “You can turn on the TV news right now and see instances where men are trying to legally control women and their bodies. I think as a society we’re still trying to figure out women.”
In discussing the two pieces, DeVita believes that the original Doll’s House is very much Nora’s story. “But everybody gets to have their point of view in the second piece. It’s like a tag-team boxing match, and your empathy for the characters is constantly switching back and forth. Nora basically comes home and has these hard conversations that have been put off for 15 years. She won’t tolerate any kind of discussions that stay on the surface.”
The play offers a sort of catharsis by insisting that Nora’s controversial viewpoint be aired. “This Nora wants to get to the heart of the matter. To be seen, to be acknowledged, maybe not forgiven, but to be heard without being simply dismissed,” says DeVita. “That’s beautiful for me. Because we all need to learn to coexist, instead of being right and separate. We need to be with each other.”