When senior theatre major Jessica MacFarlane had to choose a play to direct for her senior project, she wanted to find something that would require intellectual discussions with the actors. For her, the obvious choice was “A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen.
The Tower Players’ production of “A Doll’s House,” which opened Wednesday night in the Quilhot Blackbox Theatre and runs through the weekend tackles difficult questions, including individuality and marriage, according to MacFarlane.
“After I’ve lived and worked with the play for 16 months, it’s become so important and personal to me,” MacFarlane said. “It’s so Hillsdalian in a way because it’s about self-government and a person coming to terms with themselves and the difficult path that that is. Yet it’s not Hillsdalian, at the same time, because the end of the journey is not what people want it to be.”
The narrative focuses on Nora Helmer, played by sophomore Kirby Thigpen, as she wrestles with her role as wife and mother. Much of the action follows from how her husband, Torvald, played by freshman Jon Syren, perceives her as a person. The rising action begins when a secret from Nora’s past comes back to haunt her — she forged her father’s signature to borrow money for the sake of her husband’s health. The man who lent her the money, Nils Krogstad played by senior Lane Gaudet, comes onto the scene and threatens to blow her cover. Nora is placed in a tension as she lives a sort of double life, attempting to be the perfect wife for Torvald, while knowing she used dishonest means of securing money.
Thigpen said how the audience interprets Nora’s character will affect how they view the play’s themes.
“There’s a theme of individuality and being your own person and finding out how to do that,” she said. “But in my opinion, there’s also an underlying theme of family and what it really means to be a part of a family.”
MacFarlane, who chose to set the play in 1950s Midwestern America, said the process of working with the actors has been spectacular. MacFarlane and Chairman and Professor of Theatre and Dance James Brandon separately wrote down their ideal casts after auditions, and, serendipitously, had chosen the same actors for their respective cast lists.
“I knew these were the people,” MacFarlane said. “Some of them were a gamble; I had never seen the married couple read together when I cast them. But we got to the read-through and it was apparent that their chemistry was fantastic.”
The dynamic of directing a cast of her own peers was also a unique challenge, she said.
Brandon said the play is an opportunity to think through how we behave in society based on the roles society gives us, and what happens when those roles no longer make sense.
“Part of understanding the play is getting a sense of how chained, how restricted, these characters are by the expectations of their society,” he said. “The play pushes us to a confrontation when a character has to choose between what is best for her and what society thinks is best for her.”
The play is especially relevant for college students, he said, who haven’t yet had their ideas tested by the world.
“They don’t have a lot of practical experience. What’s going to happen when your ideals meet the road of life?” he said. “Where and when is it acceptable to compromise? That’s a difficult thing to understand as an undergraduate.”
Nevertheless, Brandon said it has been great having an undergraduate direct the play, and MacFarlane’s dynamic has been beneficial. MacFarlane is one of only a handful of theatre students who have done a project in directing during his 21 years at Hillsdale.
“I take Ibsen for granted. I know how important he is; I know what he’s contributed to the theatre. But students always come at great classic works with fresh eyes,” Brandon said. “I’m jaded; Jessica comes to it with an energy and a unique perspective.”
Brandon also said MacFarlane brought more than just actors’ skills to the project.
“A great actor is not always a great director,” he said. “Jess, I think, has the tools to be a great director. It’s been exciting from a faculty perspective to watch those unlocked.”