When it comes to contemporary theater, Maine is right in step with the rest of the country.
“A Doll’s House, Part 2,” an audacious update of the Henrik Isben classic, will be the most-produced play in America in the 2018-19 theater season, according to the annual Theatre Communications Group survey of its member theaters, and Dramatists Play Service lists more than 50 current or upcoming productions on the calendar through this calendar year.
The play, by the young playwright Lucas Hnath, will have had three productions in Maine by season’s end. Everyman Repertory Theatre produced it in Camden in November, Good Theater opens it this week at the St. Lawrence Arts Center in Portland and the Public Theatre in Lewiston will stage it in March.
In the final scene of Isben’s “A Doll House,” set in Norway in 1879, Nora walks out on her husband, Torvald, slamming the door on a domestic life that left her feeling suffocated.
Nora’s walking out and shutting the door behind her was Isben’s final scene. Hnath picks up with Nora knocking on that same door 15 years later, returning home to see what’s become of her husband and family – and to reveal to the world her exploits, as imagined by Hnath.
“A Doll’s House, Part 2” opened in 2017 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California, and soon after on Broadway, and became a fast hit. It received eight Tony Award nominations in 2017, including for best play. It won one, Laurie Metcalf for her performance as Nora.
Hnath’s play is very much a comedy, as well as a serious and, at times, tense family drama about the role of women in society, our expectations of family and how we deal with hurt and reconciliation – and if that’s even possible when wounds are deep. It’s set in 1894, but is energized by the language of today. It feels contemporary, and while it may not be a feminist play at its heart, it also cannot be considered outside the context of #MeToo.
Brian Allen, Good Theater’s artistic director and co-founder, said audiences do not have to be familiar with Isben’s “A Doll’s House” to appreciate Hnath’s play. “He takes those characters from that earlier play and puts them in this new situation and tells this completely different story,” Allen said.
Nora comes back seeking a formal divorce from her estranged husband, whom she assumed had filed the paperwork to take the legal action many years ago. But he had not, leaving her life and her career as a feminist writer that she has made for herself since she left in limbo. The laws of the time treated women unequally, and Nora worries she is committing fraud by signing contracts under her non-legal maiden name, though she writes under a pseudonym. She wants her husband to file the papers so she can get on with her life and career.
David Troup, who directed the Everyman Rep production, said the play is popular because it allows for a timely discussion about women’s rights. “It looks at what seems a fairly obvious moral dilemma and breaks it wide open, adding more and more elements to an equation that doesn’t necessarily have a solution. It gives not only a voice, but a reasoned voice to each and every character in the play. That’s a rarity,” Troup said.
Christopher Schario, artistic director at the Public Theatre, described seeing the play as “kind of like being a fly on the wall and listening in on the secret conversations that people have about their most intensely intimate feelings.”
He hesitated calling it a comedy and stopped short of calling it a feminist play, because “that puts it in a pigeonhole where it does not belong. It’s a relationship play, and a very modern play written with today’s topics and today’s language. Anybody in any kind of relationship, mothers, daughters, spouses, friends – all levels of relationships are explored in this play, and the truths about men and women and what it’s like to be more than a wife or a more than a husband and be seen as person and not for the role you are supposed to play.”
Good Theater co-founder Steve Underwood directs the Portland production. It stars Abbie Killeen as Nora, James Noel Hoban as Torvald, Maureen Butler as the nanny and Hannah Daly as the daughter.
Underwood also designed the set, and created a massive, fortress-like 7-foot-6-inch door that serves as the centerpiece of the sparse and simple set.
WHERE: St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St., Portland
WHEN: Opens Wednesday Feb 20, runs through March 17; 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $25 and $32
INFO: (207) 835-0895, goodtheater.com
The Public Theatre cast will feature Paul Schoeffler as Torvald. Schoeffler has several Broadway shows to his credit, many in leading roles. He appeared as Hertz in “Rock of Ages,” Vittorio Vidal in “Sweet Charity,” Hook in “Peter Pan” and others. He knows Schario and Janet Mitchko, the Public’s co-artistic director, from their days together at Carnegie-Mellon.
Mitchko stars as Nora opposite Schoeffler’s Torvald, reuniting old college friends “who did a lot of scene work together” back in the day, Schario said. If the chance to reconnect was not enough, the opportunity to play Torvold was enough to entice Schoeffler to Maine. “This is a drop-dead spectacular role. Nora and Torvald have a lot of fun stuff to do,” Schario said.
They all do. Everybody gets their shot at Nora, Allen said. “They all get to dress her down. But she survives.”
She announces herself with three solid raps on the door, and walks into a barrage of confrontation and score-settling the moment her knock is answered.
WHERE: The Public Theatre, 31 Maple St., Lewiston
WHEN: March 15-24
HOW MUCH: $20
INFO: (207) 782-3200, thepublictheatre.org