Nicole A. Watson is looking forward to summer.
“We’re getting to know the area,” said Watson, who moved to Montgomery County last year with her husband, a playwright, when she was offered a job in Bethesda, as Round House Theatre’s (RHT) associate artistic director. “So much of my first year was getting to know the job. Summer is coming, and we can explore the parks, the museums, the free concerts.”
Before she can relax, however, Watson has some work to do. She is directing the D.C.-area premiere of “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” which closes out RHT’s 2018-2019 season. The “most produced play of the 2018-2019 season,” according to American Theatre Magazine, Lucas Hnath’s Tony-winning play picks up the story of Nora Helmer and her family 15 years after she walks out on them in Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play, “A Doll’s House.”
Watson may be new to the area, but the cast of “A Doll’s House, Part 2” features some of RHT’s, and the D.C. area’s, best-known and most beloved actors: Four-time Helen Hayes Award winner and 24-time nominee Holly Twyford as Nora Helmer, two-time Helen Hayes nominee and RHT Resident Artist Craig Wallace as her husband Torvald, Kathryn Tkel as their daughter Emmy, and five-time Helen Hayes winner, 18-time nominee and 2018 Helen Hayes Tribute recipient Nancy Robinette as the family caretaker Ann Marie.
“I’m really excited,” Watson said. “Who doesn’t want such a stellar cast?” The director pointed out that the season had already been programmed when she arrived, and when Ryan Rilette, RHT’s artistic director, suggested she make her company directorial debut with the production, she was happy to oblige.
“It’s, like, this gift,” she gushed. “The best possible gift a newcomer could get, to get the chance to be in a room with these four artists. They’re such stalwarts of the community, and it was a great way for me to get to know the depth and breadth of the artistic community here, because my cast are four people who are so respected and beloved.”
Watson brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to RHT in return. Born in Jamaica, she grew up in White Plains, New York, and earned a bachelor of arts degree in history from Yale University, having been involved in theater and music for as long as she can remember.
“I wanted to be an actor,” she recalled. “I went to New York after graduating from Yale with that intention, but I ended up being a history teacher.” Put in charge of the school plays, Watson was directing the kids, and discovered she loved it. She went to graduate school, earned a master of arts degree from New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, and started performing again, but decided that rather than act, she’d be a director. “I started assisting, and directing, and working on new plays,” she explained. “One job led to another.”
Eventually her path led her to Round House.
“I’m new to the job, and the job is new to Round House,” Watson said. “I’ve been supporting Ryan: planning, helping with casting, reading plays and sort of being another artistic voice at the institution.”
Coming in during a year of great change — RHT’s Bethesda theater is under renovation, and its Full Circle Campaign aims to raise $14 million to expand and improve — Watson said one of the things that attracted her was the organization’s commitment to commissioning new works. “New plays and playwrights — I’m very interested in supporting that,” she said. “Once I got here, I was very excited to get to know a new artistic community. My first year at Round House has been a lot of learning and listening. A little bit of everything, really.”
And now, “A Doll’s House, Part 2.” Commissioned by California’s South Coast Repertory in 2017, the play landed on Broadway that same year, garnering 17 Tony nominations and winning a Tony for Laurie Metcalf, who starred with Chris Cooper and Condola Rashad. More of a reimagining of the characters after “A Doll’s House” ends than an actual sequel, Watson said the play works equally well for fans of Ibsen’s original and those who are unacquainted with it.
“I think the play stands on its own,” she said. “I think, because it’s called ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’ everyone thinks they need to read — I guess it would be the ‘Part 1’ — but there actually is no ‘A Doll’s House, Part 1.’ And in this case, you can see the ‘sequel’ without seeing the original.”
The original, about a marriage that ultimately doesn’t work for Nora — the “doll” of the title — was scandalous in its day, and Nora’s final act, slamming the door and leaving, has been interpreted as a clarion call for feminism. “Part 2” doesn’t recreate Ibsen’s distinctly 19th century language, but it does explore the ramifications of Nora’s exit some 15 years later.
“The world of Nora and Torvald and Emmy is informed by Ibsen’s play,” Watson said. “That’s the jumping-off point, and yet at the same time Lucas’s play is pushing us into a more modern, very contemporary landscape. There’s this interesting balance that you strike; it’s not a period piece, the silhouettes are the silhouettes of 1894, but the fabric and the textures are very contemporary.”
The questions the play is posing, Watson said, are questions that are very much on the minds of its 2019 audience. “Part of what happens when you watch this play, I think, is that you watch this family — this broken family — wrestle with their own ideas and values about what Nora’s leaving meant to them, what they expected from her, what she expected from them,” the director said. “It allows Nora a second chance to proclaim her independence and her wish for her world.
“I think that character of Nora Helmer was interested in a world where she, as a woman, has a fair amount of freedom and rights and did not have to pretend to be something she wasn’t, and did not have to be there completely in service of her husband. At the end of the day, there’s this very honest question of, ‘How do we get to know one another, and how are we vulnerable in that knowing?’ which, I think, is a really beautiful and interesting question.”
One that Watson, as a director, is confident her all-star cast can answer. “They have this way of supporting one another in the work,” she observed. “I’m a very lucky fly on the wall, watching how generous they are and how they try, and push, and interrogate. There’s such a thoughtfulness and artistry that it’s been a delightful first show here at Round House.”
Round House Theatre’s production of “A Doll’s House, Part 2” runs through June 30 at The Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St., NW, Washington, D.C. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, ranging from $30 to $71 plus $6 service fee (discounts available for seniors, military and veterans), call 240-644-1100 or visit www.roundhousetheatre.org.