TheaterDecember 05, 2018

Betsy Aidem is a veteran actress you might have seen on Broadway. Or maybe on an episode of “Law & Order: SVU.” Or maybe on the big screen last year in “The Greatest Showman.”

But over the next few weeks in New Brunswick, Aidem is adding a brand-new section to her résumé — by helming a sequel (of sorts) to a classic play that’s more than 100 years old.

Head shot of Betsy Aidem, red headed woman smiling at the camera over her left shoulder

Aidem is making her professional directing debut with the latest staging of the Tony-nominated comedy “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” running through Dec. 23 at George Street Playhouse. A show that, despite its century-old roots, fits well into today’s gender-political climate.

For the uninitiated, “A Doll’s House” is an 1879 masterwork by Henrik Ibsen about a Norwegian woman named Nora who makes a seemingly selfless decision that enrages her husband Torvald. Nora becomes disillusioned with her cushy but rigged life and decides to leave behind her family, famously slamming the door behind her as she leaves.

“A Doll’s House, Part 2” isn’t by Ibsen. It was written 140 years later by modern playwright Lucas Hnath, and picks up 15 years after Nora leaves. She returns to her former home to settle unfinished business, knocking on the same door she slammed.

Don’t worry. Everyone associated with the show says you don’t need to know Ibsen’s masterwork to enjoy Hnath’s continuation.

“The way he’s constructed it is very artful,” Aidem says. “It really stands on its own.”

The play was nominated for eight Tony Awards last year and is now being staged in regional theatres across the U.S. There have been 27 productions this year alone.

Aidem saw two of them — both of which were directed by men. She says the one she’s directing has more of a woman’s touch.

“They didn’t lean in to the things that the lead character wants — the way she is frustrated by the world and her visions to make it better,” Aidem says of the male directors. “Every character has a reasoned argument, and it was stressed a little differently when I’ve seen it. And I’ve tried to make sure certain things were heard that I hadn’t heard before in the play.”

The perspective is appropriate. Ibsen’s play was controversial for its time for its portrayal of a woman rejecting the gender norms of 19th century Europe. Aidem says the best part of “Part 2” is that audiences will realize not that much has changed — something she’s witnessed first-hand at preview performances.

“People very strongly express their feelings about the different lens we judge men and women by,” she says. “It’s fascinating, because Ibsen’s play was written in 1879, and this play takes place 15 years later, so it’s 1894. And here we are in 2018, and people still feel things about what women are allowed to do and what men are allowed to do. It doesn’t fall along gender lines, either.”

Aidem grew up in Arizona and fell in love with acting her freshman year at Phoenix’s Camelback High School during a production of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” All the departments of the school got involved — from the orchestra to the football players.

“I thought, ‘God, this sounds like fun,’” she recalls. “So I auditioned for that, and it was this huge extravaganza. And we performed on the roof of the gym, and there were art fairs and bazaars, and we were wearing costumes. And I think I was playing Cobweb the fairy. And I thought, ‘This is magic. I want to run away with the circus.’”

Aidem started out as an art history major at a college in California but ended up studying acting at New York University. Soon, she was part of the city’s theatre world.

She originated the role of Shelby in the first New York production of “Steel Magnolias” (that’s the role Julia Roberts would play in the film version).

Eventually, Aidem won both Drama Desk and Obie awards, and she made her Broadway debut in 2014 as Lady Bird Johnson opposite Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon Johnson in the play “All The Way.” She’s also appeared in a string of TV and film roles.

In New Jersey, Aidem has acted in three shows at George Street Playhouse: “Mama’s Boy,” “God of Carnage” and “Jolson Sings Again.” All were directed by the theater’s artistic director, David Saint.

The idea of directing a show herself wasn’t much of a stretch.

“I’ve always been a particular kind of actor who is really mindful of the play — how the part fits into the whole,” Aidem explains. “I’ve always been very concerned about watching the whole thing and seeing where we’re supporting the play and where we’re not.

Plus, she’s taught new play development the last 12 years, and the school asked her to direct a student show a few years ago.

Aidem credits Saint for landing the “Doll’s House” gig. She said Saint felt he needed a woman to direct George Street’s version of the play.

“He also wanted an actor’s director,” Aidem says. “And fortunately for me, he thought of me.”

Aidem credits her “amazing” cast for creating a more “human version of the play, as opposed to high comedy.”

Kellie Overbey plays Nora, who is now a writer who penned an anti-marriage novel under a fake name. Andrew Garman portrays abandoned husband Torvald, while Ann McDonough is former nanny Anne Marie and Lily Santiago is one of Nora’s now-adult children, Emma.

Aidem also got to utilize some of her art history background. She said the show’s designer, Deb O, based the set on a painter named Vilhelm Hammershoi. And that sparked Aidem’s imagination.

“I just started seeing certain pictures I just wanted to create in the play,” she recalls. “Even though it’s very fast-moving and it’s very active, and there’s a bit of a tussle in it, there are also this rest period where there’s, like, pictures, and it sort of thrilled me to combine all my interests in one thing.”

Aidem says she’d loved to direct another show. But what about fattening her résumé even more by trying her hand at playwrighting?

“Oh, gosh,” she says with a laugh. “I’d like to leave that to the people who really know how to do it. I’ve tried to write, and I actually took a writing class last year in creative non-fiction. I write better in prose and non-fiction than in dialogue. There’s so many people who do it better; why should I?”

“I’m not ruling it out because I liked being surprised,” Aidem quickly adds.

She’s not done acting, either. On Thursday, she’s taking part in a reading of Sam Shepard’s play “True West” aboard the U.S.S. Carl Vinson in San Diego for Arts in the Armed Forces. And she’ll be touring around the world with another show next year.

“Acting is a thing that sort of keeps going regardless,” Aidem says.

As for whether she thinks there’s room in the world for a sequel to another famous play?

“Well, you know, I don’t know if you could call this a sequel because it’s not authored by Ibsen,” Aidem corrects. “That’s when an author gets to write their sense of a sequel. But I don’t know about this idea of writing a second half to something.”

So there’s no need for another author to write “A Streetcar Named Desire, Part 2?”

“Well, it would be interesting to see what happens to Blanche, wouldn’t it?” Aidem admits. “It depends on whether somebody feels the issues that are in the play need to be heard for any particular reason in our current climate.”

That brings her back to “A Doll’s House, Part 2.”

“These issues need to be heard again and again and again,” Aidem says. “Everybody has had a child, everybody’s had a parent, and the people who have had a marriage or a divorce will relate to this play, because it speaks to every role that those people play in their lives.”

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Brent Johnson
Brent Johnson

Brent Johnson is a pop-culture-obsessed writer from East Brunswick, N.J. He's currently a reporter for The Star-Ledger of Newark. Before that, he was a longtime entertainment and music columnist for The Trenton Times. His work has also been published by Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated On Campus and Night & Day Magazine. His favorite musical artists: Elvis Costello, Billy Joel, The Smiths, Roxy Music, Dave Matthews Band, The Beatles, Blur, Squeeze, The Kinks. When he's not writing, Brent is the lead singer in alt-rock band The Clydes.