In This “Doll’s House,” Swearing and Laughing Encouraged

Steppenwolf’s contemporary remake of “A Doll’s House” attempts to break down the barrier between audience and performance.

By Jessica Choe

As soon as I walked in to the theater, the physical layout of the stage intrigued me. I didn’t know what the production was trying to achieve by seating members of the audience on stage; three sides of the square stage were surrounded by confused playgoers chuckling nervously as they found themselves sharing the spotlight with the actors. It was only after the first dramatic light switch and perspective change that I recognized the Law & Order sound effect and courtroom theme of the production. By suggesting that each defendant be put on trial in a public forum, the Steppenwolf put its own artistic spin on A Doll’s House Part 2, making us judge the characters more than we might have as passive audience members. 

This Brechtian production forced me to reflect on my role as a viewer by forcing me to watch audience reactions happen in real time on stage. It was as if the production had put a mirror on the stage so that our own reactions were factored into the production. At first, I was uncertain if I enjoyed feeling so involved in the play. I found it difficult to get engrossed in the performance because of my own self-consciousness. Nonetheless, the staging was extremely effective in breaking down the audience’s separation from the play. 

I was also struck by how much liberty each actor took with the characters they played. Having read Lucas Hnath’s play previously, I had imagined Nora as less harsh, Emmy as more childlike, and Torvald as more serious. It was quite shocking to watch a performance where my preconceived notions were overturned drastically with a rather arrogant and obstinate Nora, sarcastic and decorous Emmy, and comical and world-weary Torvald. 

I did not find this version of Nora as likable as my previous conception of her. Perhaps she could have garnered more audience sympathy than she did by playing up her childlike merit. Her underlying tone of insincerity made her performance hilarious, but she wasn’t presented as a character I could particularly resonate with. Torvald was the surprising comic jewel of the play. His delivery of lines like, “I can’t win with you!” were so full of exasperation and confusion that they were utterly hilarious. He, along with Anne Marie, garnered the most laughs the whole night. With his accent and perfectly timed delivery of all too relatable lines, Torvald was the frustrated character with whom we could all sympathize.  

 Anne Marie introduced a modern element to the play by cursing profusely. Every curse word she muttered under her breath or shouted with rage sent a ripple of laughter throughout the room. The choice to introduce this contemporary relief in a period play set in 1879 was an interesting one. It made the play feel more current than I would have expected. Anne Marie’s contemporary language forced us to realize that these problems aren’t only a thing of the past—they are still very much present in our lives.  

Besides this constant stern reminder to recognize the social problems in Hnath’s play in our own lives, the play concluded in a sweet manner. We saw Nora and Torvald separating on terms neither are happy with, but that both choose out of respect for each other. There was a beautiful moment where the worn out man in gray and the ostentatious woman, with such a long history and contrasting perspectives, took a moment to sit down together on the ground and hold hands. The simplicity of that action hid the depth of the meaning behind it. The implicit forgiveness and understanding that these two had developed for each other over the course of the play was beautiful to witness.   

As the two get up, Torvald walks Nora to the door, holding her bags and helping her put on her shawl. It’s a pivotal moment in the play—a stage direction that Hnath never specified in his script. He opens the door and helps her out. In this last picture, I got a sense of the respect that both partners have for each other—the first and last glimpse of equality we see in this union, as divorce papers have been signed and Nora is ready to leave home all over again. It’s a moment we, as the audience, are free to interpret however we choose. I chose to see it as respect and equality that the original Nora and Torvald never achieved in Henrik Ibsen’s classic A Doll’s House.