A play — and its star — revisit a theater icon in San Diego Rep’s ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’


A door gets the last word (as it were) in Henrik Ibsen’s great 1879 play “A Doll’s House,” when the disaffected Norwegian housewife Nora Helmer slams it on her husband and her own stultified life in perhaps the most famous kiss-off in theater history.

Now, Nora has come a-knocking again. And not just for her family (and playgoers), but for Sofia Jean Gomez, who portrays her in San Diego Rep’s area premiere of “A Doll’s House, Part 2.”

It so happens that Gomez is a member of a club so exclusive she might be the only member so far: That of actors who’ve taken on the role of Nora both in the Ibsen original and in Lucas Hnath’s 2017 “sequel,” which became something of a Broadway sensation and tops the list of most-performed plays in America this year.

And just as with the character Gomez plays, there’s a whole lot of history there.

Gomez was 18 and something of a theater neophyte when her parents dropped her off for freshman year at Sam Houston State University, a few hundred miles from the family’s home near the border of Texas and Mexico.

Having distinguished herself in monologue competitions during high school — one of her frequent rivals was the actor Michael Urie, who was to join Gomez in the off-Broadway cast of “Angels in America” more than a decade later — she had gotten into the college’s drama program but had never done an actual role in a full-length play.

“I didn’t even know how to audition,” Gomez says now with a laugh. “(It was), ‘You want me to read these scripts? OK!’”

So she gave it a whirl, reading for roles in upcoming productions.

Then, “I waited there while they posted the casting,” hoping she made the cut.

Sure enough, Gomez’s name was on the list. For a lead role.

Nora Helmer in “A Doll’s House.”

“All the seniors were upset,” says Gomez, with wry understatement.

Fast-forward 15 years (give or take), to a moment when Gomez is an accomplished New York-based actor and Yale School of Drama grad, with numerous credits off-Broadway and at top regional companies coast to coast, from the McCarter Theatre to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

While in New York, she goes to see “A Doll’s House, Part 2” — the sequel in which, after 15 years away, Nora suddenly arrives back at the door of the family home. It turns out she needs something from her husband (although to say more might risk giving away too much).

Gomez is completely taken by the story.

“I loved the play,” she recalls of Hnath’s work, which takes on contemporary language. “I said, ‘This is amazing.’ I love Lucas’ writing. I love the nuance, and the stylized, articulated arguments. And the way it feels like a boxing match of verbal violence.”

Not long after, Gomez’s partner of some 10 years, fellow theater artist Jesse J. Perez, is offered a position as the new director of the the Old Globe and University of San Diego Shiley Graduate Theatre Program. (He officially takes on the job this January.)

So Gomez starts contacting artistic staffers at theaters around San Diego, letting them know she’ll be moving to town and will be available for potential roles in upcoming productions.

And then she hears back from Rep associate producer and casting director Kim Heil, who asks: “Would you like to audition for ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’ — as Nora?”

Knock knock.

Everything on the table

From Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”:

Nora: “I must stand quite alone, if I am to understand myself and everything about me. It is for that reason that I cannot remain with you any longer.”

Torvald (her husband): “It’s shocking. This is how you would neglect your most sacred duties.”

Nora: “What do you consider my most sacred duties?”

Torvald: “Do I need to tell you that? Are they not your duties to your husband and your children?”

Nora: “I have other duties just as sacred.”

Torvald: “That you have not. What duties could those be?”

Nora: “Duties to myself.”

Those lines are from the climactic “table scene” in the Ibsen masterwork, which was hugely controversial at the time for its forward-thinking ideas about women and patriarchy.

It was the table scene that Gomez was asked to read in auditions before she landed the role of Nora in college.

So: Was there something about Nora she immediately connected with?

“Oh, yes,” Gomez says. “Oh, very very much. My upbringing is that my father is Mexican and my mother is kind of Irish/French. And (I lived) in the Mexican culture of, the man is the voice of house, and the women do this and do that.

“But for some reason I was already built — probably as a baby! — to rebel. I kind of went against the grain. So I really understood where Nora was coming from.

“I understood the sense that, in your gut, you know something isn’t right with the way the system is working for women, or with the way society wants me to play the role I need to play, as a woman.

“And knowing I’m capable of far more — but I don’t know what that is. I need time to discover that.”

It’s a story that can’t help but have contemporary resonance — and in Hnath’s sequel, there’s the added twist that while Nora has been away, she has become a successful author of novels about women who leave their husbands.

Gomez — who actually trained as a boxer for a couple of years — can’t help but return to the idea of “Part 2” as a kind of prizefight of values and ideas, a feel that she says is reflected in Rep co-founder and artistic director Sam Woodhouse’s production.

But “boxing is about strategy,” she points out. “It’s not just about hits — not just, ‘Pow pow pow!’

“Nora’s in the middle of a battle — and going back to that house in the middle of this effort to help women have a voice in society.”

‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’

When: Previews begin Nov. 21. Opens Nov. 28. 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Some exceptions; check with theater.) Through Dec. 16.

Where: San Diego Rep’s Lyceum Stage, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown.

Tickets: $25-$69 (discounts available)

Phone: 619.544.1000


Popular plays

Each year, American Theatre magazine publishes a list of the 10 most-produced plays across America that season. The numbers are compiled from among the 500-plus theaters that are members of the Theatre Communications Group, which publishes the magazine. (The list excludes productions of Shakespeare and the holiday perennial “A Christmas Carol.”)

For the 2018-2019 season, the No. 1 play is Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” which is about to open its local premiere at San Diego Rep.

A couple of notes about this year’s list: It actually includes two works written by modern authors as sequels to theater classics — the Hnath play, and “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” now getting its area premiere at Carlsbad’s New Village Arts. (That work is co-written by the prolific Lauren Gunderson, last season’s most-produced playwright.)

And of the listed plays — which actually number 11 this season because of a tie — the Rep has staged (or will stage) the local debuts of three.

A look at the full list and number of productions nationally, plus details on any San Diego-area productions:

“A Doll’s House, Part 2,” by Lucas Hnath: 27. Now in previews at San Diego Rep under co-founder and artistic chief Sam Woodhouse’s direction.

“Sweat,” by Lynn Nottage: 16. The play by Lynn Nottage, which won the “Ruined” writer her second Pulitzer Prize, has its local premiere at the Rep in January, with Woodhouse again directing. The piece focuses on the plight of working-class people in Pennsylvania.

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” adapted by Simon Stephens from the novel by Mark Haddon: 13. The Tony Award-winning play about a young amateur detective on the autism spectrum has, surprisingly (and unfortunately), not yet been produced in San Diego, nor even visited on tour.

“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon: 13. This holiday-minded sequel to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” is now in previews at New Village Arts.

“The Wolves,” by Sarah DeLappe: 13. The 2016 off-Broadway favorite and Pulitzer Prize finalist centers on a girls’ high-school soccer team; it has yet to be staged or announced locally.

“Fun Home,” book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori, based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel: 12. The Rep produced a memorable San Diego premiere of this piece (the 2015 Tony-winner as best musical) earlier this year.

“Indecent,” by Paula Vogel: 12. The world premiere of this affecting work about a famous and controversial Broadway play and its fallout was co-produced by La Jolla Playhouse and Yale Rep in 2015. It went on to win a Tony Award for director Rebecca Taichman, Vogel’s close collaborator in the play’s creation.

“Native Gardens,” by Karen Zacarías: 12. The expectations-flouting, class-minded and borderline farcical comedy about feuding neighbors had its first area production last summer at the Old Globe.

“Skeleton Crew,” by Dominique Morisseau: 11. The Old Globe also produced (in 2017) the local debut of this probing piece about the struggles and resiliency of workers in a Detroit auto-parts plant.

“Once,” book by Enda Walsh and music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, based on the film by John Carney: 9. Coronado-based Lamb’s Players Theatre had a major hit earlier this year with a superb staging of the movie-based musical about the complex bond between two musicians in Dublin.

“Pride and Prejudice,” by Kate Hamill, based on the novel by Jane Austen: 9. Cygnet Theatre is set to put up the area premiere of Hamill’s unconventional Jane Austen adaptation in spring 2019.

Twitter: @jimhebert