On a chilly December night in 1879, “A Doll’s House” appeared on stage in Copenhagen, Denmark. The play told the story of a married woman who pushes back against her roles as wife and mother, sparking a controversy that spread far and wide in global newspapers. Playwright Henrik Ibsen insisted that he didn’t intend to support the women’s rights movement, but nonetheless, “A Doll’s House” has been reproduced again and again in times of feminist struggle: during the Women’s Suffrage movement, the 1970s Women’s Movement and now, admist the “Me Too” era, by University Theater at the University of Oregon.
On Friday, University Theater opened “A Doll’s House” as adapted by Frank McGuinness and directed by Theresa May. The show will also be performed on March 6, 7, 13 and 14 at 7:30 p.m. and March 8 at 2 p.m. at the Robinson Theatre in the Miller Theater Complex. The show is free for UO students, $10 for adults and $8 for non-UO students and seniors.
“A Doll’s House” opens with the picture of perfect domesticity. In a full pink dress, with blonde curls spilling over her shoulders, protagonist Nora Helmer (Kendelyn Thomas) seems frivolous and adorably clumsy as she carries out her wifely duties and coyly requests more money from her husband. Torvald (Wolf Morgan-Steiner) embodies the protective head-of-house, vowing to look after “childish” Nora, his “most prized possession.” Morgan-Steiner convincingly conveys Torvald’s stubborn views and outrageous arrogance, prompting both groans and laughter from the audience.
We quickly learn that Nora’s life is not as simple as it seems. When her childhood friend Kristine Linde (Madeline Williams) visits, Nora divulges her secret: in a time of need, she illegally borrowed money from the solemn Mr. Krogstad (Diego Millan), violating laws that prohibited women from taking out loans without their husbands’ permission. Nora is stuck navigating the repercussions, trying to dodge Krogstad’s attempted blackmail and prevent the news from leaking out.
Still, the scandal emerges. Nora waits for “something really glorious” to happen, believing her husband will take a heroic stance in her defense. His true reaction shocks her, completely rewriting her perception of her life. “I’ve never been happy here… not happy, just cheerful,” she realizes. “Our home has been a playground, where I’ve been your doll wife, the same way I was Papa’s doll child.” As clandestine dealings, unfortunate illnesses and unexpected romance unfold throughout the play, Nora grows into a new version of herself, someone more serious and capable of going after what she wants.
The story ends bravely. In a final scene so controversial for its time that one of Ibsen’s original actresses refused to perform it, Nora challenges the social roles she has long occupied and makes a bold move to break free. “I have to find out who’s right,” she says. “Society or me.”
“A Doll’s House” revolves around one marriage in the 19th century, but reveals insights into timeless topics like gender roles, economic justice, love and deceit. According to director May, the story indicates how gender inequality harms everyone involved—like Torvald, Nora and their children—not just women. “And so we have approached this play with an eye for its humanity, rather than its clear (and celebrated) gender politics,” she wrote in the program. Nora and Torvald’s evolving marriage and the plot twists that push them down this path tell the story of this humanity, touching on the things that connect us, as well as the human need for independence.