Hartford Stage Opens Season With Ibsen Play; Think 'Heather Gabler'
Roxanna hope stars in the Hartford Staghe prioduction of Henrik Ibsen's 'Hedda Gabler.' (T. Charles Erickson / September 6, 2012)
First impressions: Remember the girls of 'Heathers,' the 1988 film about a group of intimidating, contemptuous clique-toids who rule their high school roost and destroy lives in their self-centered manipulations? Well, one of them has escaped into an Ibsen play.
I am exaggerating here for effect perhaps but I find Roxanna Hope’s wicked and yet captivating portrayal of the infamous, pistol-packing anti-heroine oddly invigorating in a contemporary way. Ditto Jennifer Tarver’s directing in this well-cast production in Hartford Stage season opener. From the moment we see Hedda in the fetal position on her baby grand (get it?) to Eugene Lee’s “unfinished” set signaling Hedda’s incomplete life, there are startling touches to liven this oft-told tale of those who have power and those who don’t.
What’s it about?: Fearing her time is over at age 30, the entitled, self-possessed daughter of the late aristocratic General Gabler settles for marriage to a promising-but-dull scholar, George Tesman (John Patrick Hayden), who is also devoted to his loving aunt (Kandis¿ Chappell).
But in her new bourgeois life, the fiercely intelligent Hedda feels stifled, frustrated and mad. When A former flame, the brilliant Eilert Lovborg (Sam Redford), re-enters her life when Hedda’s old schoolmate Thea Elvsted¿ (Sara Topham) tries to enlist Tesman’s help for Lovborg. to assist Eilert. Hedda uses her will and wiles to shape everyone’s destinies. But in this society, it’s a man’s world and Tesman’s friend Judge Brack (Thomas Jay Ryan) works a power play of his own, sealing Hedda’s fate.
The performances?: Hayden brings has a sweet earnestness to his role that almost makes Hedda’s marriage choice to the guile-less, devoted Tesman understandable. Chappell brings a welcome coolness to the role of the aunt. Ryan’s Brack is nicely underplayed, showing that a man of power doesn’t have to strut his stuff. but rather just present it as a matter of fact. Redford’s Lovborg is a vital and volatile presence and a charismatic bad-boy whom we can believe Hedda would obsess over. The audience’s heart also goes out to Anne O’Sullivan as Berta, the maid who is in a constant state of panic working for her demanding mistress.
Hedda sounds like a terror: Actually Hope’s Hedda has charm, grace and is beguiling — even when she is bored to death — so when she does erupt it’s pointedly for a major character reveal. It is obvious that Hedda — along with Brock — are the sharpest knives in this dramatic drawer but Hedda’s role in this 1890 society is limited, trivial and domestic. When she suggests to Brock that Tesman could prehaps enter politics, it is clear who should really be pulling the levers of power and for a moment we feel Hedda’s sense of emptiness of potential unfulfilled.
Production values?: Lee’s set is symbolically significant though its thematic statement of an unfinished home works against the feeling of Hedda living in a claustrophobic hothouse. (It helps that the work is played in Hartford Stage’s more intimate thrust stage.) Fitz Patton’s sound design also lays on the stormy effects pretty thick. Fabio Tolbini’s period costumes are more subtle, especially in a series of striking and telling outfits for Hedda and the other women.
Who will like it?: Women who will find connections with all the distaff characters on stage. Some Ibsen fans.
Who won’t?: Other Ibsen fans. It’s always been a challenging play and many productions have traditionally struggled mightily to understand this elusive, fascinating woman.
For the kids?: High schools who may be reading the play in class might find in this Hedda some mean-girl counterparts.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: 'Hedda' continues to challenge, frustrate, engage and in well-acted production that looks a big thematic ideas.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: Surprisingly, the woman in this production that I find most fascinating and thought-provoking — though way less fun — is Sara Topham’s transformative performance as Thea, who lives in the same hostile, paternalistic world as Hedda yet manages to find purpose in her passions. Where Hedda feels trapped in her domestic cage, Thea is no victim and in her struggles finds the courage and independence in her own way to fly free.
The basics: The show plays through Sept. 23 at the theater located at 50 Church St., Hartford. Running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7:30. Matinees are on Sundays and selected Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $26.50 to $83.50 not including fees. Information: 860-527-5151 and www.hartfordstage.org.