An unhappy wife leaves her husband and children to find fulfillment outside the home. Are you positively shocked? Stunned? Enraged beyond description? If you find yourself yawning, you’re probably not the kind of nineteenth-century theater-goer for whom Henrik Ibsen wrote A Doll’s House. Playwright Rebecca Gilman believes that with today’s blasé attitudes about divorce, something of Ibsen’s intent has been lost.
“In the original play, it was a huge statement for Nora to leave—it was the door slam heard around the world,” Gilman says. “And I kept thinking that the door is open for women now, so what keeps us inside?”
In Gilman’s version of the play, Dollhouse, which opens at Stages Repertory Theatre this month (see On the Town, page 123), Nora is a bored housewife who browses Target and listens to Madonna. She fills her days with shopping and childcare; her infantilizing husband monitors her diet and critiques her spending. When Nora complains about her life, her husband mocks her: “Every day you have to get up and—oh! go to spin class, and oh!—get a Starbucks. How do you even have the energy for your pedicure?”
All those spin classes must be paying off, since Nora holds the play’s male characters in her thrall. But although she seems sexually liberated, we quickly realize that she’s just as trapped as her nineteenth-century namesake. If Gilman’s goal was to make Ibsen’s play shocking again, she appears to have succeeded. Many audiences have been angered by its controversial ending.
The 16 percent of Houstonians who still believed, in 2005, that it was more important for a woman to help her husband’s career than to have one herself may be particularly startled by the play’s dramatic finale, as may Houston’s own Beyoncé, our nation’s single most persistent voice for putting a ring on it. But upsetting expectations is precisely the point, says director Eva LaPorte.
“We expect Nora to be this feminist hero, but the character is a lot more complicated,” LaPorte says. “I’m hoping this play will have the impact on our audience that Ibsen’s play had on his audience.”
This production may only convince you that the childish Nora has herself to blame, but it will strip you of the temptation to watch Ibsen with the smugness of an outsider looking back at a benighted past.