Ibsen Classic Is Hartford Stage Opener
by Tom Holehan
“Hedda Gabler”, Henric Ibsen’s timeless classic offering the “Hamlet” of roles for an actress willing to take on the challenge, has opened Hartford Stage’s 2012-13 season. While not a definitive rendering of Ibsen’s masterwork, Hartford Stage’s production has plenty of plusses especially in the casting of that key role.
Written in 1890, Ibsen’s play is as timely as ever. Hedda Gabler, the daughter of a renowned general, has recently married George Tesman, a bookish and dull scholar currently running low on funds. When news arrives that Tesman’s academic rival is on the scene, the bored and troubled Hedda plots some gamesmanship to relieve the tedium of her life. That she is playing with people’s lives has begged the question is Hedda victim or villain? In this faithful adaptation of the play by Jon Robin Baitz (“Other Desert Cities”), the controversy of what makes Hedda tick continues to cause debate. And that is how it should be.
At Hartford Stage director Jennifer Tarver has the good fortune to have cast Roxanna Hope as her Hedda. Ms. Hope is a mass of contradictions in the role and her face reveals nothing except wicked delight in her actions. It helps that Hope infuses this Hedda with so much delicious humor: the raised eyebrow, the half smile. That she is also beautiful doesn’t hurt, but like Mary Louise Parker’s recent take on the role (a Broadway production that divided critics), Hope takes lots of chances here and delivers in spades.
In the rather thankless role of Tesman, John Patrick Hayden is fine but Sam Redford ultimately lacks the wounded romanticism as his rival, Eilert Lovborg. Thomas Jay Ryan’s Judge Brack also seems to underplay that character’s seductive charms and ruthless determination. Kandis Chappell as Tesman’s fragile aunt and Sara Topham as Lovborg’s secret mistress, however, are memorable in roles that often don’t seem so.
Eugene Lee’s scenic design includes a backdrop of scaffolding depicting other rooms not yet explored and I applaud the addition of General Gabler’s portrait on stage, still under wraps but with a pair of visible eyes keeping silent watch on his daughter. Fabio Toblini’s gorgeous period costuming and Robert Thomson’s lighting are also of high quality here. Ms. Tarver’s direction is mostly unfussy save for some odd business that has Hedda prone on her piano at the beginning and end of the play. Whether this was Baitz’s idea or directorial concept, it is a silly addition that borders on the pretentious. Ibsen’s masterpiece needs no such help in trying to explain its heroine. It is her innate mystery that compels us to watch.
“Hedda Gabler” continues at Hartford Stage through September 23. For further information and ticket reservations, call the theatre box office at 860.527.5151 or visit: www.hartfordstage.org
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.