Nora is young and beautiful; she has a home and family.
And unbeknownst to her husband, she also has a job.
But audience members know, and they will share her secret as the many layers of A Doll’s House unfold as the Southern University Department of Speech and Theatre brings Henrik Ibsen’s story to life.
The play opens Wednesday, April 10, in the university’s Hayden Theatre, which recently has received a facelift.
Audiences were shocked by the play’s ending on Dec. 21, 1879. That’s when Ibsen’s play premiered in the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark. He was later even made to change the ending.
But Southern’s production will conclude A Doll’s House with its original ending, as do most productions these days, because it is no longer shocking to see Nora’s decision play out in the end. Nor is it difficult to understand it.
And though many already know what happens, there are still those who have never seen Ibsen’s classic play or even read it in high school or college. So, they will have to attend one of Southern’s performances to learn what happens.
But here’s a clue; A Doll’s House is considered the first play to tackle feminist ideals, which is significant because it was written and produced in the 19th century.
Ibsen was critical toward 19th century marriage norms. He was inspired by the belief that, as he said, “a woman cannot be herself in modern society ... since it is an exclusively male society, with laws made by men and with prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine standpoint.”
But Ibsen later disclaimed in a speech given to the Norwegian Association for Women’s Rights that he hadn’t consciously worked for the women’s rights movement when writing the play but was offering a description of humanity.
Still, his story hit close to home for many audience members. Maybe too close to home. For the story presents the main character, Nora, as living a double life.
She’s the wife of Torvald Helmer, who treats her as a doll, suited for his entertainment. But she’s also his savior.
“She took out a loan at the bank to preserve his health,” Aileen Hendricks said.
She’s a professor in the theater department and director of this play.
“Doctors said he needed to go to a warmer climate or he would die,” she continued. “They didn’t have the money, and Torvald didn’t believe in debt. So, Nora took out the loan and forged her father’s signature on it.”
Yes, that’s against the law. But Nora was doing what she thought she had to do to save her husband’s life. And she took a job copying papers to pay off the loan.
“She copies at night,” Hendricks said. “And at one point, she says she likes it, because it makes her feel like a man. She’s not referring to wanting to be like a man but to the freedoms a man has. She’s doing this job, making the money, and there’s freedom and power that goes with it.”
But there is a conflict. Torvald is manager of the bank where Nora has her loan. He is about to fire Nils Krogstad, who knows Nora’s secret and threatens to reveal it unless she can convince Torvald otherwise.
So, Nora dances and entertains Torvald by day and works by night. And through it all, she wonders if he will stand by her in the end.
This hasn’t been an easy play for Southern’s theater department to stage. The university has done away with its theater major, and the department is using private funds from the Southern University Foundation for this production.
The department also is without a technical director, so some of the private funds were used to hire Kenneth Mayfield, a past cast member in Southern’s productions, for that job.
Then, at the last minute, the role of Nora had to be recast. But the show will go on.
As it did on this particular day with students rehearsing the Thursday before Good Friday. They also spent their spring break week rehearsing for the show.
A show whose themes Hendricks discussed with them before rehearsing it on stage.
“We talked about what a man was supposed to be and how Torvald was the typical man of that time,” Hendricks said. “And we talked about what was expected of women in the 1880s, of the ideas of what they should and shouldn’t do. It’s Nora’s play. She lives in a fairy tale and has delusions. But so does Torvald. He fancies himself a hero. Nora has gone from her father’s house, where she was treated like a doll, to Torvald’s house, who treats her like a doll.”
Now back up and think about something Hendricks said. Torvald fancies himself a hero.
True, he provides for Nora and their children, but Nora has risked all to preserve his life. Heroes take risks, but even they sometimes lose.
So, who is the true hero here?
That question can be answered by taking in a performance of A Doll’s House.
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