Why Hedda Endures

There's something about Hedda.

"Hedda Gabler," that is, the titular character in Henrik Ibsen's classic "new woman" tale, the original housewife of Oslo County, the gal who has attitude, aptitude and is one mean shot. The inscrutable character has intrigued audiences, fascinated critics and challenged actresses more than 120 years.

And now Roxanna Hope has a chance to take aim on the character.

Hope stars as the cool, calculating anti-heroine in the season-opener at Hartford Stage, with previews beginning Thursday, Aug. 30, and the press night set for Wednesday, Sept. 3. The production, directed by Jennifer Tarver (Long Wharf Theatre's production of "Krapp's Last Tape" starring Brian Dennehy), runs through Sept. 23.

Darko Tresnjak, artistic director for Hartford Stage, says he chose the work as the first show of his inaugural season because he felt the play — about a daughter of an aristocratic general who marries a good-but-not-brilliant academic and finds her new provincial life unfulfilling — especially timely.

"There are Heddas all around us these days," he says. "We're living in a youth-obsessed culture paired with a bad economy with huge loans that don't allow [young] people to find themselves in the world."

Tresnjak deferred directing the show himself "because it's too close to me. But I might want to play her," he says, laughing, "This is an all-or-nothing character who has certain expectations of the universe. She is either going to succeed or things are going to end badly. It's a very dangerous play and a very dangerous character."

To stage the play, Tresnjak turned to Tarver, whom he met and admired when both were doing work at Canada's Stratford Shakespeare Festival. (She is next set to direct Dennehy in "Waiting for Godot" there.

The Canadian director had recently staged a not-often-produced Ibsen play, "Brand," and "caught the Ibsen bug." Tarver says, "For me it wasn't about 'Hedda Gabler' or it being a 'woman's play' — it was just Ibsen and I wanted more and to delve into the nature of his storytelling."

For the adaptation, Tarver turned to a version by Jon Robin Baitz, which she described as "minimalist and direct" writing.

Casting was more of a challenge and the actors she saw were "all good but they were so American. I needed a woman who would take another angle, either ethnic, or something, I didn't even know what that was, something to make us feel that this character was from another world."

"I get that all the time," says Hope, who grew up mostly in Texas but moved around the country and lived overseas, too. "There is something 'other' about me that is hard to define in that way."

Hope says when she got the part her agent expected her initial reaction to be elation, "but I was terrified immediately because of the expectations attached to it. There is so much baggage. I had to strip all of it away and pretend that Ibsen just handed me the script and said, 'Have a read'."

So she read the script endlessly, eventually finding that "everything is revealed through the language. If you just trust the play it will take you where you need to go."

Hope, who has also been directed by Tresnjak in "Princess Turandot" and "The Blue Demon," joins a long line of actresses who played the role. Mary-Louise Parker played Hedda in the most recent Broadway production, with an adaptation by Hartford-born, Wethersfield-raised playwright Christopher Shinn. Other actresses include Ingrid Bergman, Eva Le Gallienne, Kelly McGillis, Maggie Smith, Kate Mulgrew, Judy Davis, Cate Blanchett, Diana Rigg, Claire Bloom and Annette Bening. Glenda Jackson played her on film. Diane Weist took on the part at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven in the '80s and Martha Plimpton played the role in a production at Long Wharf Theatre in the late '90s.

Tresnjak wanted to step away from the "grand dame" syndrome and cast young, vital and sexy actors. (Hedda is not yet 30 in the play.) "It's a play about moving from youth to middle age," he says, "when people ask, 'Is this my life?'

Hedda Who?

But who is Hedda, the character often described as the female "Hamlet," the fiercely intelligent, self-entitled character who can't decide what to do with her stifled life?

"I don't figure out who is Hedda," says Tarver. "I let Hedda emerge from the equation, from the precision of the storytelling. I can't think that she's this or she's that because I feel that would be wasting my time. The action for Hedda is largely internal.

"You've got this psychological space where the play for me actually exists, and then you have all these other [characters in the play] who are foils to her state of mind."