by Rosalind Friedman

If you have seen HEDDA GABLER before, you might not be impelled to see this Ibsen classic again. But the production at the Hartford Stage so pulses with electricity, and Roxanna Hope is so devilishly intriguing and beautiful in the role of the scheming, frustrated Hedda, this play demands your attendance. Ms. Hope captures the twists and turns of this complex character with menace and maniacal humor that fascinates. Ibsen was the first playwright to deal with psychological problems and insights with a special understanding of women, who at that time had little control over their lives. He was ahead of his time. When HEDDA GABLER was first shown in 1890, it was panned; by 1900 it was praised.


Here, Adapted by John Robin Baitz, author of the marvelous play Other Desert Cities, from a literal translation by Anne-Charlotte Hanes Harvey, and directed by Jennifer Tarver, the characters, costumed exquisitely by Fabio Toblini, shine. We meet them in Christiana, Norway, at the new home of George and Hedda Tesman, who have just returned from a six month honeymoon in Europe. Hedda, who plays with her father's pistols, has challenged all to try and understand who she really is: Monster or maiden? The daughter of a wealthy general whom she adored, she has married the milquetoast academic specialist, George because her options ran out. John Patrick Hayden does the best he can with this thankless part. She is bored to tears by his obsession with the classics. He dances to her tune, buying her a large luxurious home, which he can only afford if he wins a prized professorship. His devoted aunt, Julia (Kandis Chappell), has decorated it for them and has even given her her maid, Berta (the entertaining Anne O'Sullivan).


In the first scenes, Hedda, who does not seem to have a compassionate bone in her body, manages to intentionally insult both the good auntie and the frightened maid. Subsequently, she is cruel to her old school chum, Thea. In many Ibsen plays, there is a confidante lurking around, waiting to make trouble. In this case, it is Judge Brack, a part Thomas Jay Ryan makes his own. The Judge wants more than a friendly relationship with Hedda, something this despicable but moral woman does not want. The plot thickens when the reformed Eieler Lovborg, one of Hedda's former lovers, returns to Christiana. Sam Redford, a big man, brings power and passion to Lovborg, who has written a successful book, and is in some competition with George. Sara Topham is effective as the hysterical Thea Elvsted; she has left her husband and followed  Lovborg in order to protect him from the sins of drink and flesh.


Lovborg shares a new manuscript with George, who finds it brilliant. Egged on by Hedda and Brack, he falls off the wagon, loses the manuscript and commits suicide with one of Hedda's pistols. All the while, Hedda has in her possession the precious manuscript and burns it so that her husband will have no problem winning his job. She is now caught in a web of lies, which leaves her no recourse.


I found Eugene Lee's set design a little wanting. The stove is an important component in the story, and it should be larger and more centered on stage. The scaffolding is terribly modern and does not serve much purpose. Robert Thompson's lighting is also a little odd. When the curtains are opened, there seems to be no sunlight coming through the windows.


However, the Hartford Stage production of Hedda Gabler, which will play only through Sept 23, is clear and courageous and worthy of award.


(This review originally aired on WMNR Fine Arts radio)

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