Playwright Lucas Hnath. Photo by Zack DeZon.
The Influence of Nora
Few plays have spawned as many sequels, parodies or adaptations from the very outset, and Nora in particular seems to hold fascination for artists and audiences alike—all over the world. Below are some of the many adaptations and variations on Ibsen’s original.
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For Lucas Hnath’s SCR commission, he proposed writing a play that takes place 15 years after Ibsen’s A Doll’s House ended, set in late 19th-century Norway, but mildly anachronistic in order to comment on modern marriage and relationships.
Ibsen’s A Doll’s House famously ends with Nora leaving her husband and children so as to find herself, rather than be defined by her roles as a wife and mother. When she slammed the door shut, many theatregoers were incensed by the frank critique of a woman’s place in society, and the play caused a storm of controversy. A Doll’s House, Part 2 begins with a knock at that famed door: Nora has returned.
Anne-Marie, nursemaid to Nora’s children, answers the door and can hardly believe her eyes. Nora playfully asks Anne-Marie to guess where she might have been for the past decade and a half. Anne-Marie correctly surmises from Nora’s clothes that Nora has done well for herself, but can’t begin to imagine how a woman could have survived the harsh reality of the larger world. Nora reveals that she is a famous and successful writer who, under a pseudonym, pens controversial opinions in opposition to the institution of marriage. Nora has returned because she has learned that her husband, Torvald, broke a promise and never filed their divorce paperwork, a fact discovered by an enemy who now threatens Nora’s hard-won life and fortune. Anne-Marie hints at a problem (everyone thinks Nora’s dead), but they are interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Torvald, fetching some papers he forgot that morning. Torvald is thunderstruck when he realizes who is sitting at his dining room table with Anne-Marie. He sends Anne-Marie away and, after a long silence, his response to her homecoming makes it clear that Nora must face her past choices as well as her now-grown daughter before she can get what she has come for.
Hnath uses sparse but charged and often anachronistic dialogue, distilling the story to its central characters and constructing a series of face-offs, mining the conflicts for their emotional nuance. The play is a stylized exploration of power struggles in marriage and relationships, and the difficulty of reckoning with long-held grudges. What happens when Nora is forced to confront the people she chose to leave behind?
Much like the rest of the American theatre, the artistic staff of South Coast Repertory has found itself increasingly excited by the work of Lucas Hnath. We first read his play Hillary and Clinton (before Hillary’s first bid for the presidency) and was immediately struck by his unique voice and his ability to tackle social and political issues and raise probing questions in plays of exceptional theatricality. In the intervening years, he has had great success, including his play The Christians, premiering at Humana and then produced at Playwrights Horizons, Center Theatre Group and many more. His play Death Tax was produced at the Royal Court in London, while his play Red Speedo has had a number of productions—notably at New York Theatre Workshop, with a set that featured a glass-sided pool, so audiences could watch the main character, an Olympic swimmer, actually swim.
THE CAST; Lynn Milgrim, Shannon Cochran, Virginia Vale and Bill Geisslinger.
Shelley Butler, known for her rich visual imagination, has been directing work for the last decade on SCR’s stages, most recently in Theatre for Young Audiences productions of Oz 2.5 and The Borrowers. In A Doll’s House, Part 2, she embraces the stripped-down period setting with a spare theatrical approach that allows the play’s series of sparring matches between characters to shine. She has put together a fantastic cast—Shannon Cochran, Bill Geisslinger, Lynn Milgrim and Virginia Vale—and a crackerjack team of designers. The production is challenging, because the elements must evoke the period in which it is set and yet resist a realistic or historically accurate world. For a play set in the 1890s, the sparely furnished set means that every choice of what appears onstage becomes all the more important. Like Hnath’s script, this is a focused production that doesn’t gild the lily with unneccessary extras. Takeshi Kata and Se Hyun Oh co-designed the bare-room set, anchored by the famous door for maximum visual impact. Sara Clement is designing slightly sleeker versions of period costumes. They’re joined by Tom Ontiveros doing lighting design and Cricket Myers doing sound design.
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