click to enlarge Ashleigh Ann Gardner and Suzanne O’Donnell

Photo by Seth Kubersky

Ashleigh Ann Gardner and Suzanne O’Donnell

Two women play Nora Helmer, drama’s most polarizing heroine, at opposite ends of her life 

If Doc Brown taught us anything, it's that time travelers must take care when encountering themselves, lest they rip a hole in the time-space continuum. But when I recently witnessed Henrik Ibsen's heroine Nora Helmer meeting her younger self, her first words weren't, "Great Scott!" but, "We have to go to lunch!"

Suzanne O'Donnell, a 20-year veteran of Orlando's stages, currently stars in Orlando Shakespeare's production of A Doll's House, Part 2, Lucas Hnath's Tony-nominated 2017 sequel to Ibsen's iconic door-slamming drama. Simultaneously, up-and-coming actress Ashleigh Ann Gardner will play the same role in the original play starting this weekend at Central Florida Community Arts. The pair met each other for the first time ever during an interview with me late last month, marking not only an encounter between two generations of characters and performers, but an unusual collaboration between Orlando's premier professional company and a key community troupe.

Audiences will remember O'Donnell from her many shows in Shakespeare's Goldman Theater, including Winter's Tale, Turn of the Screw and God of Carnage, while Gardner has most recently been seen in The Penelopiad at Valencia and CFCArts' Noises Off.

"I found out I was cast in Doll's House, and I was so elated because this was kind of like a pipe dream," says Gardner, who first read the play in college. "It's a dream come true to be able to play one of the key feminist characters that I have looked up to for my entire theatrical career."

O'Donnell, on the other hand, confesses that she found the translation she read in college "creaky and oldey-timey" and that she's never seen the original on stage, but acknowledges its historical importance. "This [play] upset people and upended things. I've always wanted to be part of a theater production where people were protesting, rioting and ripping the chairs out, because I felt like that's what our theater is supposed to be doing. We're supposed to be making people uncomfortable."

What made Ibsen's script so scandalous [140-year-old spoiler alert] was Nora's climactic abandonment of her husband, Torvald (played by Michael Geniac at CFCArts and Steven Lane at Shakes), and her three children. Her return 15 years later to finalize their divorce kicks off the follow-up, and though the scripts' styles are very different, the shared central question, as O'Donnell puts it, "What do you owe yourself in this world, and what damage are you willing to do to fulfill that?" still remains relevant.

"I have two kids and the thought of being away from them for 15 years makes my body hurt," says O'Donnell. "She chose herself, which even in this day and age, we societally are not at ease with that."

At the same time, don't be scared away by all the Scandinavian stress, since both actresses independently discovered an unexpected lightness in the role.

"Penelopiad was very intense, it's a very collaborative ensemble piece [and] I was on stage almost the entire time. ... Nora is so playful, and as a person I'm very playful, so I love being able to interact with [the cast]," says Gardner. "It is like a confection in a way," adds O'Donnell, describing the play's central relationship. "It's delicious, it's sweet, and there's nothing at the center."

While the two performers are on the same page regarding many aspects of their character, the styles and processes of their two shows have some striking differences. Under director Robin Olson, Gardner's squirrel-inspired movements have been influenced by wearing Nora's constrictive corsets during rehearsals, which she says "definitely shapes your gait when you wear one, and makes me feel so much more like her."

O'Donnell, on the other hand, prefers working in the opposite way, saying, "I just want it in my body first ... I'm slowly inching towards the corset thing because it is so wildly uncomfortable, and you can't eat." Instead, her focus has been on Hnath's dense modern-language dialogue. "It's almost like a piece of music the way the author has written it, with very specific stops, pauses and overlaps. It's like learning a crazy jazz piece, so I spent four months just hard memorizing, because it goes at a clip. There's not even any time to get yourself together and rest your head; it's a wild ride."

It isn't necessary to see one play to enjoy the other, but for the ultimate Doll's House day, you'll want to attend the double feature performance on Jan. 26, which includes a buffet dinner and Q&A with the creatives of both shows. And if you can't handle both back-to-back, discounts are also available for those seeing both shows on separate days; visit dollshouseplay.com for details.

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