"A Doll's House, Part 2": The return of Nora

"A Doll's House, Part 2"
"A Doll's House, Part 2" 08:21

Laurie Metcalf had a knack for getting laughs on TV's "Roseanne." Now she's ON BROADWAY, and nominated for a Tony at next Sunday's big ceremony. She's starring in a play that has a very famous "prequel," as Mo Rocca now shows us: 

"When a wife leaves her husband, as I am leaving you now, legally as I understand it he is absolved from all obligations towards her."

When last we left off with Nora Helmer in Henrik Ibsen's landmark 1879 drama, "A Doll's House," she had had an awakening. She was no longer content playing wife and mother; she needed to find out who she was … and so she walked out that door, leaving her husband and her young children. 

But her story didn't end there.

Nora is back in "A Doll's House, Part 2." Yes, there's a sequel, set 15 years later, but written almost 140 years after the original.

Tony nominee Laurie Metcalf in "A Doll's House, Part 2." Brigitte Lacombe

The idea of doing a sequel started with the title, said playwright Luca Hnath: "I wrote the title on a piece of paper and it made me laugh. … I kept on telling people, 'Someday I'm gonna write a sequel to 'A Doll's House,' just because it sounds audacious to do that."

Laurie Metcalf, who plays Nora in the show, now on Broadway, said, "It was called 'A Doll's House, Part 2,' and I was, 'Part 2?' I don't know what this writer is imagining that he has the nerve to call his play a 'Part 2.' But I thought, but it's probably got some guts to it, the fact that he chose to title it that way. And it probably had some humor to it."

She's right. Unlikely as it sounds for a play about a broken family, there's humor in almost every scene. Even intense marital fights like one between Nora and her estranged husband, Torvald, in which she tells him, "You don't act … you're constipated!"

"See? That, coming out of this character's mouth, who's in this period costume and in a corset, you know? It's just so funny," laughed Metcalf.

Laurie Metcalf as Nora and Chris Cooper as Thorvald in "A Doll's House, Part 2," playwright Lucas Hnath's sequel to the Henrik Ibsen classic.  Brigitte Lacombe

Funny is no surprise coming from Metcalf.  You probably know her best from the 1990s sitcom "Roseanne," as Roseanne's sister, Jackie.

But Metcalf was dead-serious when it came to acting in "A Doll's House, Part 2," and wrestling with a famously complicated character who made a still-controversial decision to leave her family. 

In one scene, she and her daughter, Emmy (played by Condola Rashad), confront that decision together:

Emmy: "I actually think in a lot of ways things turned out better because you weren't around. I think I'm better at life because of it. I had a lot more responsibility. I had to deal with some difficult truths about life at an earlier age than you usually have to deal with those types of things. I feel bad for the kids growing up having a usual life. I feel special!"

Rocca asked Metcalf, "Is it hard to wrap your head around that when you're acting this?"

Condola Rashad as Nora's daughter, Emmy, in "A Doll's House, Part 2." "A Doll's House, Part 2"

"Yes," she replied. "And to this day, it's hard for anybody to wrap their head around it, let alone in 1879 when it happened and audiences were so jarred, that whole countries wouldn't even produce the play. It's still really hard to wrap your head around -- she closed the door behind her, not knowing if she could even survive."

Spoiler alert: Not only has Nora survived, she's now a very successful writer. 

Playwright Lucas Hnath discussed the various scenarios that he considered for what happened to Nora after that door slam: "Overwhelmingly people thought she either died, went to work in a factory and died, became a prostitute and died -- like, just dismal, dismal ends for her!

"Once I started hearing from people what they expected, all I knew is, I had to do the opposite of that. She needed to walk in the door and she needed to be doing absolutely great."

To honor original playwright Henrik Ibsen's Norwegian heritage, Rocca met the full cast -- all of them Tony Award nominees for the new play -- at Blenheim, a Nordic restaurant in New York City.  And they gabbed over gravlax.

For Oscar-winner Chris Cooper, who plays Torvald, the secret to his marriage was an early litmus test back when he was a struggling actor:

"In New York, I was a carpenter," he said. "I had a toolbox on wheels. And a big job I had in New York, my wife helped me take 4x8 sheets of sheetrock up eight flights of steps. And that was the night that I said, 'She's my girl!'"

But making a marriage work was not Nora's top priority in 1879. And when she returns 15 years later, she isn't exactly greeted warmly:

Torvald: "I say to myself I have one big regret: I wish I had left you!"

"Nora comes breezing back home to get something, and not realizing, I think, a lot of the damage that has been done in the 15 years," said Metcalf. "Each person gets to take their punches at Nora, and they all get to say, 'This is what you did when you left.'"

Even the nanny takes her whacks:

Anne Marie:  "F*** you, Nora.  F*** you. You have zero gratitude. I raised your kids! You should be coming in here, first words out of your mouth should've been, 'Thank you, Anne Marie, thank you for abandoning your own life and your own child and raising mine, so I can go off and do my little thing!'"

"It's one of those arguments that really pushes back against Nora's having made the decision to leave her children," said Tony-winner Jayne Houdyshell, who plays Anne Marie.

"A Doll's House, Part 2" 01:19

And for Lucas Hnath, that sort of heated confrontation is essential, on-stage and off. 

"This is the kind of play that I think a lot of people leave arguing about,' Rocca said.

"Yes. That makes me happy!" laughed Hnath. "I want more argument. I think when you spend an evening hearing these long arguments, it catches and you go home, hopefully, and start making your own case for why you think what you think."

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