It’s said that when one door closes, another one opens.
At the end of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 classic, A Doll’s House, protagonist Nora Helmer decides to (spoiler alert!) leave her husband and children to start a new life. This game-changing examination of gender roles and 19thcentury marriage was bold, controversial, shocking, and liberating in ways that were never seen on stage before the time of the play’s publication.
The lingering question of where Nora’s journey took her next is now being answered in the new play, A Doll’s House, Part 2. Picking up fifteen years after Nora closed the door of the Helmer house and on her old life, this new play written by Lucas Hnath finds Nora returning to her previous home to finalize her divorce. What ensues is yet another brilliant and poignant exploration of identity and society that expand upon both the world and ideas that Ibsen presented over a century ago.
Now playing through July 28 at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, A Doll’s House, Part 2 is directed by Joe Calarco. I chatted with the director about the show, the timelessness of Nora’s story, the impact of the #MeToo movement on this production, and more.
ALEX NAGORSKI: A Doll’s House features one of the most iconic endings of all time. What is it about Nora’s story that makes her such a fascinating character to continue exploring beyond the groundbreaking source material?
JOE CALARCO: Well, Ibsen’s original play was incredibly controversial. When it first premiered in 1879, many were appalled by it, finding it an attack on the institution of marriage. It was forbidden to be performed in London. For the German premiere, the actress playing Nora refused to play the last scene, saying she could not imagine a mother leaving her children. So Ibsen wrote an alternate ending for that production – though he felt doing so was “an abomination.”
The play opens with the stakes already incredibly high. Nora knocks on a door – the same one she walked out of fifteen years prior. Now a successful writer, she has evolved a great deal since the last time she stepped foot in the Helmer house. How challenging is it to maintain this same level of tension throughout the duration of the entire show?
Honestly, that tension is so beautifully written into the play by Lucas Hnath that it wasn’t a challenge at all. The play is a series of two person-sparring sessions between different characters. The tension is there because of the loaded 15-year history all the characters are bringing into those interactions.
What does Obie Award winner Laila Robins bring to her interpretation of Nora that audiences may be surprised by?
I’ve known Laila for a long time. I first saw her in Albee’s Tiny Alice at Second Stage in New York years ago and became determined to work with her. We ended up workshopping the musical Picnic At Hanging Rock by Daniel Zaitchik at Lincoln Center and at the O’Neill Music Theater Conference but we had never done a full production together. The minute I read this play I thought, “Laila has to play this part.” She is always surprising to me. She makes choices most actors don’t think of, so those who know her work will just revel in getting to see her rip into a character that demands so much from any actress playing her, and boydoes she meet those demands. If you don’t know her work, then you will have the great joy and thrill of seeing one of the best actresses we have just killing it. She’s as good as it gets.
Although it’s set in the late 19thcentury, the play remains very topical to contemporary audiences. What is it about this story that makes it so timeless?
It was way ahead of its time when first written in terms of showing a complicated three-dimensional woman who has a clear understanding of self on stage. The box she’s put into in her marriage is suffocating her and she makes a decision she has to make in order to survive – a decision that was considered unforgivable by many when it first premiered well over a hundred years ago. Watching audiences during previews and seeing some people gasp or look shocked at things Nora says is a sad reminder that times have not changed as much as some would like to think they have.
How has this production been influenced and/or shaped by the #MeToo movement?
To me, context is everything in the theater. What is happening in the world allows or forces an audience to hear things differently. The first use of the “me too” phrase was in 2006 by Tarana Burke as part of a campaign to unite and support women of color who had experienced sexual abuse. The phrase did not become widely known about until (surprise surprise) a white woman appropriated the phrase and used it as a hashtag on social media in October of 2017 to draw attention to sexual assault and harassment. The original Broadway production of the play closed in September right before the hashtag became widely used on social media.
I think hearing the play in the current environment ignites an audience in a very immediate way and in different ways, depending on who they are and their feelings about the movement. On opening night when Nora yells, “I don’t need a fucking savior!” some people cheered and I could see others a bit more cold to it, maybe threatened by it. That’s what good theater does— startles, provokes and creates the opportunity for conversation.
Often times, sequels to beloved classics by different authors tend to not be embraced the same way that the original stories are. Why do you think Lucas Hnath’s play has become such a hit?
It’s a damn good play even if you haven’t read the original! It stands on its own as a really good play. But anyone who knows Ibsen’s original has wondered what happened to Nora after she slammed that door and this play allows you to engage with that question.
Is there a specific scene that you’re most excited for audiences to see? If so, which one and why?
Every scene is a tour de force. Each one is almost a three act play unto itself in terms of how they’re structured so I love them all. But I find the Emmy scene the most surprising because I think an audience has its own ideas of how Nora’s absence will have impacted her children. And Nora wonders too, of course. So in that moment when Emmy first appears, the audience is in the exact same place as Nora is – and where Emmy is in her life isn’t at all where Nora expected her to be and I think most audiences have the same response.
What are some of the key takeaways that you hope audience members have after seeing this production?
I know they will be knocked out by the performances and I hope they leave talking about the play and discussing how far we’ve come or not come as a culture in terms of how we view women.
When you were laying out your directorial vision for this production, did you approach it more as a brand new and standalone piece? Or was it more similar to working on a revival since the characters and their backstories are already so well known?
I think the play stands alone as a great piece of writing, but of course our knowledge of Ibsen’s play informs so much of how you view the characters. We read parts of Ibsen’s play in the early days of rehearsal and that was fascinating— to see who Nora was and who she has become— or as Hnath has Nora say about who she was in the marriage “That’s not me. That was a thing I was doing because if I didn’t do it, then you wouldn’t have listened to me about anything that was important to me.”
As the recipient of several Helen Hayes Awards, the Barrymore Award, and the Lucille Lortel Award, along with numerous nominations, what would you consider your signature touch as a director?
I think I provide a safe rehearsal space for actors to take risks so I hope the plays and musicals I direct always have very raw, honest performances in them. I’m fortunate enough to work with designers who share the same aesthetic as I do and we always challenge each other to up our game. I think visually my shows are always very striking without getting in the way of the performances— the design is always there to support the actors.
How will this production be both similar to and different from last year’s Broadway production?
I actually didn’t see the Broadway production, which I’m happy for. I didn’t have any images to influence me or to have to fight against. I feel very strongly as a member of the directors union, SDC— I sit on the Executive Board— that a director’s work is their work and it should not be replicated without permission. It is a director’s job to bring their own vision to a piece. The script itself demands certain things, but I think our production is even more spare visually than the Broadway production, allowing the actors to carry the play. I think, like on Broadway, the audience will see four master actors tear into a great play.
You’ve worked on many shows at Barrington Stage Company, including Ragtime and The Burnt Part Boys. What is about this specific theater company that makes you keep wanting to work on more projects here in the Berkshires?
Julie [Boyd, Artistic Director of BSC] has always been so supportive of me. BSC is like a second artistic home for me. I’ve gotten to work on new work here both as a director and as a writer and I’ve gotten to re-examine existing work like Ragtimeand Breaking the Code. Julie trusts me and always is there to support my vision of a piece. That’s a gift.
The show has its final bow on July 28. What’s next on your plate? And what are some dream projects you hope to work on in the near future?
I get a little bit of a break, which I’m looking forward to because this is my third show in a row since April and I’m looking forward to letting my brain recharge. I’m a writer as well as a director and I have a new play I’m looking to finish. I’m Director of New Works and Resident Director at Signature Theatre outside of D.C. and I’m directing two shows there next season – the first being Heisenbergstarting rehearsals in August. I also write a world premiere one-act play each year for Signature’s education program, Signature in the Schools, so I will be getting started on that soon. I’m looking to expand the play we did last year, 12 Million Footsteps, about the Syrian refugee crisis, into a full length play, which I’m going to develop with some Syrian actors. Another theater in D.C.— 4615 Theatre Company — is producing the world premiere of another play of mine, Separate Rooms, next spring.