HEDDA GABLER -- playing at Hartford Stage through September 23

By Tom Nissley

I have often wondered what it must have been like to be the daughter (and only child) of the renowned General Gabler. It’s not that we don’t have clues. There are lots of them in Ibsen’s wonderful melodrama about her life as a bride. But we have the chance to take the clues and form them into a construct. The father she knew seemed to be powerful, but not powerful enough to allow her to really experience her own power. He would have been happy with a boy, but received a girl child -- decades before we knew that the father determines the sex of the baby. But why be bitter? He taught her to ride and shoot like a man. He passed on his own overinflated sense of personal importance and an instinct for cruel and abrupt decisions. And he taught her to live as if no one else matters. From her childhood forward she behaved that way, in school, in social circles, and in her marriage. The marriage is recent, when we meet Hedda Gabler. Ibsen didn’t use her married name as a title for the play, because he said she never got beyond being Hedda Gabler, her father's daughter.

 

Hedda (Roxanna Hope) married George Tesman (John Patrick Hayden), who was delighted to have her as his wife. He, and his Aunt Julia (Kandis Chappell), would have described him as being so in love with her, but not so. He was only in love with his own dream of what marriage might be, and seemingly oblivious to her need to abuse him. Tesman the person, like many of us, is also the figment of his own imagination. He and his aunts perceived him as a wonderful scholar, leaving no stone unturned in his pursuit of history. But his position in the University only became likely when Eilert Lovborg (Sam Redford), another, better, scholar fell victim to alcoholism.

 

The other main characters in the play, Thea Elvsted (Sara Topham), and Judge Brack (Thomas Jay Ryan), are used by Ibsen to tell the surrounding story. In the larger than life production now playing at Hartford Stage we are hearing a 1999 adaptation by Jon Robin Baitz, itself based on a literal translation by Anne-Charlotte Haines Harvey. It is directed by Jennifer Tarver, known for directing opera, and plays at Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

 

One might wonder about the vastness of the set, explained in the script only by Hedda’s saying to Brack that once when she was out riding with Tesman, in order to keep from having nothing to say, she acknowledged this old mansion with “I’d like to live there someday.” Tesman took it seriously, and then of course the aunts took it seriously, and dear Aunt Julia has mortgaged her own home so that dear George could offer this house to dear Hedda (who didn’t really want it). The working set is essentially one level, along with stairs heading to a lower level, repeating an earlier approach by Eugene Lee in “Crucible.” But above the working level there appear to be three floors worth of upstairs rooms or attic storage with a trunk here, a rug there, tucked into steel scaffolding, and we have seen the piano lowered into a lower level. It was impossible to squelch the thought that such a vast house could have been symbolized more simply. Not only George and Julia wanted Hedda to live there someday, but director and designer and artistic director came to some agreement that the patrons of this production should live there for an evening. I am not sure that it was as inviting as they hoped.

 

The action on the stage was electric from start to finish. George’ naivete shined brightly. Aunt Julia’s sweet concern for George and her attempted loving advice for Hedda was clear. Hedda’s abrupt rejecting of Aunt Julia and all the puffery was perfectly communicated, and Miss Hope shuddered beautifully whenever George noticed that she was a bit fuller in figure than she used to be, or Julia crooned how nice the big house would be if the family grew to three. When left on stage alone with Ms. Topham or Sam Redford, she exuded every kind of vicious manipulation, pulling energy from each of them, and arranging for Lovborg’s going off the wagon. Together they made the telling of the story vibrant and compelling. Judge Brack was not manipulated as much by Hedda as she was by him. It was he who promised to keep her secret in return for the extra companionship she might give him. But Hedda wanted the power over someone’s destiny; she (Hope) gesticulated triumphantly when Lovborg took a drink from her, and despaired when she realized that his death was accidental, not courageous, as she had suggested. Faced with a future with the boring Tesman, perhaps a baby, surely a social circle not to her liking, and under Brack’s thumb, she took control of her own destiny against the will, one surmises, of the father in her head.

 

A good production, slightly too vast, of a real classic. Good costumes ((Fabio Toblini), great lighting (Robert Thomson), and great sound design (Fitz Patton). Go to see it. Tickets at www.hartfordstage.org. or 860-527-5151.

 

Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre.

September 10, 2012

 

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