Through Sept. 23, Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford, (860) 527-5151, hartfordstage.org
Hedda Gabler is a great play that takes well to vigorous revisualization. The new production at Hartford Stage is quite faithful — no radical deconstructionism here — but it is updated and willing to depart from musty historicism in ways that work. American playwright Jon Robin Baitz' adaptation of the text is direct, trim, and tight, with just an occasional word that hit my ear as too slangy. Renowned set designer Eugene Lee, who created an overhead forest in the catwalks a year ago at Hartford Stage for The Crucible, here foregrounds the sense of a life under construction by presenting a wall of scaffolding on which various household items are scattered, and a fairly bare parlor at stage level with stairs leading to living spaces below — an inversion of what might be expected. Ibsen may be famous as the father of social realism in theater, but director Jennifer Tarver and her team are (wisely) not constrained by pictorial realism.
Hedda, the ambitious daughter of a famous general, and her new husband, a nerdy aspiring professor of history, are just back from a lengthy honeymoon on the continent. While she has been massively bored he has been consumed by what he calls "utterly vital minutiae" related to his research about domestic industries of a particular region during the late middle ages. They are, it is clear, quite a mismatch. How can she make a life she wants, tethered to this man, within the cultural expectation that she should be fulfilled by mothering and domesticity — prospects that repulse her?
Hedda is among the most famous roles for women in theater. While it clearly fits into Ibsen's interest in females frustrated by social norms at a time when the women's movement was just emerging in Europe, there is plenty of juicy material to suggest that Ibsen was exploring dilemmas of character, emotion, sexuality, and drive that he felt personally: Hedda can be seen as one of his psychological self-portraits. Darko Tresnjak, Artistic Director at Hartford Stage, has spoken about his own sense of identification with Hedda. Hedda is someone who wants a big life but can't achieve it, for reasons arising in both inner and outer worlds. The play is timely now as we see many people frustrated by economic downturn, struggling to make meaningful adult lives.
Lead actress Roxanna Hope is well cast: gorgeous and compact, she is desperate and brittle, controlled and dangerous. (She's also stunningly dressed by Fabio Toblini.) Her Hedda is alluring and smart but also terribly well bred, afraid of scandal, and hyper-reactive to the physicality of sexual and family life. Her access to any sort of legitimate power is so blocked that she can only resort to manipulative, destructive action. Consequences unroll with the inevitability that Aristotle named as one of the hallmarks of true tragedy.
John Patrick Hayden brings constrained body language to bear in his his portrayal of Hedda's ineffectual husband George Tesman. He's utterly believable and nearly as trapped as she is. They are moving into a house prepared for them by Judge Brack, a family friend who upholds social norms professionally but operates as a sexual predator privately. Thomas Jay Ryan is miscast in this role, I'd say; but I confess to undue prejudice born of seeing a searingly sexual James Earl Jones in the role at Yale Rep in the 1980s. Sam Redford plays the inspiring but dissipated genius Eilert Lovberg, but also falls short of the kind of presence the role demands — unless part of director Tarver's intent is to demonstrate that Hedda's hottest male options are themselves short of blazing. Sara Topham does fine here as the mousy Thea. Both Kandis Chapell as Aunt Julia and Anne O'Sullivan as Berta are detailed and credible.
This solid production moves very fast at times but never obscures Ibsen's great text.