“The whole play is one, big awkward moment.”
That’s how actor Maggie Bofill aptly described “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” which began preview performances Wednesday at Long Wharf Theatre and officially opens this coming Wednesday.
Written by Lucas Hnath, “A Doll’s House, Part 2” remains a bold piece of theater two years after its Broadway premiere for no other reason than it is a sequel to one of the western canon’s most iconic and influential plays. Hnath follows the mighty Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” an early work of realism that genuinely shocked audiences struggling to digest it upon its 1879 premiere.
When Nora famously slams the door on her husband and three young children at the end of the play, Ibsen slammed the door on the artificial sentimentalism of the theater in favor of true human interaction.
Perhaps for this reason, few have attempted to continue Ibsen’s classic story before Hnath. Audiences in 1982 would hear none of Adolph Green, Betty Comden and composer Larry Grossman’s musical “A Doll’s Life.” It shuttered after five performances, despite Hal Prince’s direction.
Yet Hnath’s play ran a healthy 172 performances on Broadway and vastly populates our regional theaters this and next season. Laurie Metcalf won a Tony for Best Actress for her performance as Nora opposite Chris Cooper’s Torvald.
Most theater traditionalists who managed to get past Hnath’s obvious chutzpah wondered what good reason Nora has for returning home after slamming the door on her former life so resoundingly.
“Nora finds out, 15 years after she left, after the famous door slam, that Torvald never filed the divorce papers,” said actor Maggie Bofill, chatting alongside Jorge Cordova, Long Wharf’s Torvald, before rehearsal recently. “So they’re still officially married. And she’s been doing all kinds of things out in the world of the 1800s that are illegal for a married woman to do.”
Among Nora’s “crimes” is to create her own livelihood as a successful feminist author and live independently. Since women of Nora’s time and place lacked the same rights as their male counterparts to own property and bank accounts, or file for divorce, society compels Hnath’s Nora to return to the scene of the slam. “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” which continues at Long Wharf through May 26 under Will Davis’ direction, indeed reveals a very awkward scene that its characters neither anticipated nor desired, as far as Bofill and Cordova are concerned. “The thing is, knowing that she’s been doing illegal things because of her status as married is dangerous,” Bofill said, adding that the play is laced with humor. “I think that keeping it as quiet as possible was her goal, which is why she goes directly to the source. ...”
“She finds she’s going to have to deal with the 15 years of opinions of people she left behind still have,” Bofill said, “and how people feel toward Torvald being first and foremost.”
Yet as persuasive as Nora impresses her estranged husband, Torvald is not prepared to grant Nora her freedom, Cordova said.
“So what happened when (Nora) left?” Cordova said, “(Was) everybody wondering what happened to her? The story being told in this play is that people thought maybe she got sick, and stories started spreading that she died. So Torvald never filed for divorce because everyone assumed she was dead,” he said, “and he was able to gain the empathy of being a widower, as opposed to something that’s scandalous. So he just let that narrative live.
“There was no need to change that story,” Cordova said. “So it’s not too easy to file for divorce at this point.”
The fact that Torvald and Nora stay in the same room for 90 minutes begs the question of whether any love remains between the two.
“You know, I think there is … love,” said Cordova. “It’s hard to describe. I have complicated feelings about this that I’m actually in the process of trying to clarify for myself.
“I feel like he’s hurt,” he resumed. “There’s a line in the play where Nora says, ‘I hear hurt.’ I think that’s truth — he really was hurt. I think he thought he was in love with Nora. But I don’t know if he ever really understood what real love is, what it is to actually be in love in a relationship where both partners felt a deep connection with each other.
“I don’t know that he’s ever had that with Nora,” Cordova said. “Nora was the wife he thought she should be. She served honorably when she was there. I think that he thought this is what love was.”
“The way I see it,” said Bofill, “—and there’s an advantage of being an actor here — Nora realized she was playing a role. And she played it really well. It was a role written by her father, by society and by men. And women. It was written by the culture of the time. And she was a perfectionist, an enthusiast. She was passionate. And she was going to play that role as well as possible. And she did it really, really well.
“When the play turned, the play of her life turns,” she continued, “and the outcome she always knew was going to come is busted; it’s like she’s a character realizing they’re now a piece of fiction, as opposed to a living, breathing thing that exists outside of this constructed reality.
“But does she love Torvald?” Bofill said. “He’s the father of her children. And she realizes he’s a kind man.
“This play is like she’s coming back from the future,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, wow! You guys still think this? OK. You’re sort of stuck in time. … She’s evolved from this and it’s like you speak different languages,” she said. “It’s not a ‘love or hate’ kind of thing. It’s more like a ‘can we coexist?’ kind of thing.”
One readily wonders if the success of Hnath’s play coincides with the cultural and political assault on the Old White Patriarchy epitomized by the #MeToo movement. Cordova doesn’t disagree with the play’s timely arrival, but believes it strikes the chord of truth in any generation.
“I think it would have been just as relevant in the ’90s, or the ’80s, or before or after,” he said. “I think it would have been relevant if it happened in actual time — 15 years after the first play. Audiences would say, ‘What? They’re doing it again? How dare they? You mean they brought her back again, and she’s not a prostitute? She’s not destitute? And she’s successful?’”
Bofill said that the play resonates now because expectations of women’s roles are rapidly, if belatedly, changing.
“Everyone feels a kind of ownership about who women should be,” she said. “And it’s sort of that ownership has been in the hands of men more than women. So it’s interesting that something that was so controversial then still hits buttons now.
“Even the issue of marriage and fidelity,” she said. “It’s an institution that’s been around a long time; should we just accept it because it’s been handed down? Or do we actually look at it and make a choice of whether we engage with it or not?
“There’s a lot of that happening right now,” Bofill said. “Things are being turned on their heads right now because they don’t serve the individuals that are kind of being beaten down by it.”