In 1879, the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen rocked the bourgeois world with his play “A Doll’s House,” which ends as Nora Helmer, a seemingly proper late 19th-century wife and mother, proclaims her need to strike out on her own and discover her true self.
Leaving her keys and wedding ring behind, she slams the door on her husband and children in a proto-feminist gesture George Bernard Shaw famously dubbed “the slam heard round the world.”
In Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” a hit on Broadway this season, Nora returns “home” after 15 years and confronts her former husband, grown daughter and nanny. The actress who walks through the set’s black, 10-foot-tall door is Laurie Metcalf, the veteran Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member best known as Jackie Harris on the ABC-TV series “Roseanne,” in which she appeared from 1988 to 1997.
Metcalf, who has earned universally stellar reviews as Nora, is seen as a good bet to walk away Sunday with the 2017 Tony Award for best actress in a play. The awards are being broadcast live on CBS from New York’s Radio City Music Hall.
For Metcalf, who won three consecutive Emmys for “Roseanne,” this is her fourth Tony nomination. And her turn as Nora might just hold the key to a win.
“I don’t find this fun at all,” Metcalf, with her characteristically black sense of humor firmly in play, said of the awards presentations. “With my past nominations, I was usually back in Los Angeles. These ceremonies are terrifying, stressful things to me.
“I prefer the art of interpretation. That’s where I feel comfortable. I don’t enjoy being in front of a crowd as ‘myself.’ Without a script and a wig, I’m out of my comfort zone. But, yes, I do have a dress — a dark green gown by Christian Siriano that I wore to last year’s Emmys.”
A pure-bred creature of the stage, Metcalf grew up downstate in Carbondale and graduated from Illinois State University, where she met Jeff Perry and Terry Kinney, two of the three Steppenwolf founders. She became a charter member of the company, making an indelible mark in Lanford Wilson’s “Balm in Gilead,” which she reprised Off Broadway in 1983.
She has played countless roles at Steppenwolf, was hailed for her performance as Mary Tyrone in a 2012 London production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night” and last year got a Tony nomination when she co-starred with Bruce Willis on Broadway in “Misery.”
“I still have the passion in me to do theater,” Metcalf says. “It’s the thing in the world I love doing most, and I’m grateful that I never stopped doing it.”
She never had the chance to play Ibsen’s Nora but says that, from the moment she first read Hnath’s play, she found it “fresh, funny and unique.”
“The title is really a bit misleading,” she says. “You don’t really need to know the Ibsen original, and you don’t have to worry that you are going to see a stuffy, dated, period piece. Lucas has totally reinvented this Nora, and performing her is like a sporting event. When the character lands a really good argument, I hear cheering from the audience, from both males and females.
“Plus, every character gets to have his or her moment, and each of them is both right and wrong at various times during the play. And this has turned out to be particularly appealing to a young crowd.”
Metcalf instantly connected with this “new” Nora.
“Lucas’ dialogue came right off the page, and I loved the way the period costumes were juxtaposed with the very contemporary verbal and physical language,” she says. “I also loved Nora’s flaws. She can be selfish, petulant and greedy, and will stop at nothing. Plus, I had wanted to work with the director [Sam Gold], and I felt very protected by our producer, Scott Rudin, who knew he wanted to take the play directly to Broadway.”
In real life, Metcalf, who calls herself a workaholic, was able to sidestep the sort of “self-actualization” dilemma faced by Ibsen’s Nora.
“The ‘Roseanne’ show fell into my lap when I had young kids,” she says. “So, for almost a decade, I had the perfect schedule for raising a family — working in one city, with something like a 9-to-5 schedule and summers off. As they got older, I returned to the theater, where often you have to be out of town for five months at a time.”
(Zoe Perry, her daughter with first husband, Jeff Perry, is a successful actress who is about to star in ABC’s “Young Sheldon,” the prequel to “The Big Bang Theory,” playing a younger version of the role originated by her mom. Metcalf and her second husband, Matt Ross, from whom she is now divorced, also raised three other children.)
Hnath — author of “The Christians,” “Hillary and Clinton,” “Isaac’s Eye” and “Death Tax,” all of which have been produced in Chicago — says of Metcalf: “I grew up watching Laurie on ‘Roseanne’ and was a huge fan, and she was the unanimous choice to play Nora by me, by Sam and by Scott. My plays are technically difficult, with some of the lines almost like tongue-twisters. And I want the sound of thinking to be louder than the sound of feeling.
“Laurie is a brilliantly technical actor but never coldly clinical in her virtuosity. And she always lets you hear her thinking. I still remember how she came onto the stage to rehearse the play in the theater for the first time and devised six poses, figuring out just how her costumes and the fabulous boots she wears in the show could be used.”
Writing in the Guardian, a critic described Metcalf as “an actress who vibrates with emotive intensity — a bipedal tuning fork — who can switch from warmth to cruelty at the turn of a heel.”
“A Doll’s House, Part 2,” has garnered Tony nominations for all four of its actors, as well as Hnath, Gold and two designers. And its initial “limited-engagement” run through July 25 has just been extended through Jan. 7, with no word yet about cast changes.
Metcalf is scheduled to shoot the eight episodes of the “Roseanne” reboot, which, like “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” jumps forward about two decades as it looks at where the members of the working-class Illinois family the Connors are now. She says she still has no idea of the story line.
And then she will head back to Broadway to costar with Glenda Jackson in “Three Tall Women,” Edward Albee’s quasi-autobiographical 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about his relationship with his mother, slated to begin previews in late February.
As for returning to Steppenwolf, Metcalf says it’s a matter of “finding the right project.” She says that Anna Shapiro, the theater’s artistic director, “and I are in an ongoing search.”