Hedda Gabler works when we believe in the title character, and when we don’t, it doesn’t.
In this production of Henrik Ibsen’s 1890 play, directed by Andrew Russell, Intiman’s new artistic director, there is an estimable core of good acting and directorial wit. It delivers the single most important experience in theater — you want to know what happens next. It is so vivid that no matter how well you know the play you can still be surprised by turns of phrase and the course of action.
Yet there are a handful of artistic decisions, especially those where gesture and movement are allowed to trump language, which may ultimately quell your faith in Hedda as a force of life as you watch this production, despite the confident and often exciting performance by Marya Sea Kaminski.
As written, the character of Hedda walks along a precipice, always on the verge of falling from the path of being powerful and meaningful to slipping off into the abyss of being petty and nuts. As produced here, there’s an occasional tendency to overplay the parts, and also a slow build of twitches and shadow play. Together, these aspects ultimately push Hedda, or at least her character’s fundamental dignity, right to the edge, and perhaps over it.
Sustaining belief in Hedda, keeping her on the path of being powerful and meaningful, is not for the weak of heart or mind, whether actor, director, or in this case, choreographer as well.
Hedda is a striking woman “of style and character” in Ibsen’s directions, who has come home from a long honeymoon with her husband Jorgen Tesman to their new home, fitted out by their family friend Judge Brack. She’s pregnant, though refusing to acknowledge it, and she is absolutely miserable about her present and prospects — a misery she can’t help but share.
She’s a woman who in the course of 48 hours manages to ruin the lives of those closest to her, plays nasty class-based practical jokes, destroys a major work of ideas, mocks an alcoholic into drinking, and declares her only talent to be boring herself to death. Hard to love, Hedda Gabler is. If, as she says, her only talent is to bore herself to death, she certainly isn’t boring for everyone else. They might wish she were a bit more dull.
In a A Doll’s House, perhaps Ibsen’s best-known play and first produced in 1879, protagonist Nora is far easier to understand and empathize with, at least for contemporary audiences. A consummate nurturer who seems to epitomize the role of bourgeois motherhood, Nora grows from being an anxious, pretty housewife with true grit and intelligence unrecognized by her family and society, into a woman who realizes that she has been sorely misjudged and abused, and that the one person she has not nurtured, mentally, physically, and socially, is herself. She walks out of her doll’s house, including her husband and children, because she must to become her own true self.
And Hedda? She starts angry, furious at her life and herself, without a whit of nurture in her. Society has trapped her, too, yet her rage, at least at first glance, might be any gender’s at any time. She refuses to be ordinary, and will do anything to overcome it. That's a dilemma familiar to men and women across the centuries, and one that rarely impresses mental health professionals or anyone else today. The only “self-actualization” that she can imagine is about power over others — artistic, political, financial. If she can’t be extraordinary, there’s no reason to be alive.
In other words, a production of Hedda Gabler sets a very high bar for its creators. We have to be passionately engaged by a woman who unlike her “older sister” Nora is in many ways as outside the bounds of our 21st century cultural conventions as she was in Ibsen’s 19th-century Europe, albeit for different reasons. Hedda wants the cruel freedom of the artist, and her only available palette is other people’s lives. She’s in the situation of a playwright, or a director. Like so many great plays, Ibsen’s play is in many ways about theater itself.
That amounts to a high risk, an irresistible challenge for a theater company, and one well worth taking. It’s also exactly right for Intiman’s theater festival.
So how does Intiman pull this off? The production is handsomely staged. The 19th century parlor furniture is set against a cool gray set, and the sheer curtains help establish the two settings critical to Ibsen’s drawing room-plus set. There are added elements, such as the balcony close to the audience for Hedda to practice shooting from (it has a clear role in another of the festival’s productions, Romeo and Juliet), and there’s a large balcony in the depths of the stage, where the characters brood when they are not in the scene. The actors are in modern, or at least late 20th-century dress, eclectic with a lot of boots for the women and gray jackets for the men. The text is happily free of the “By George” clunkers of earlier translations. The cast delivers the lines with relish.
Sometimes the relish could have been served on the side, I feel. On the one hand, it is wonderful to see a production that recognizes just how funny Ibsen is; like his great admirer Shaw, or Wilde, he is a breathtaking satirist. Hedda’s academic specialist husband Jorgen Tesman is writing a book on domestic crafts in 14th-century Brabant, a subject that preoccupied him for much of his six-month honeymoon. Well played by Ryan Fields, Tesman sees the world through a very narrow lens. Even his adoring Aunt Julia is compelled to say, dryly, “Fancy being able to write about things like that.” Julia is fiercely competitive and ambitious for her nephew, and Shellie Shulkin steals every scene with her timing of irony and grit. This complete care-giver is played so archly that she can seem incongruously heartless, especially after her invalid sister Rina dies.
Judge Brack, as cynical as any character in theater, is played by Timothy McCuen Piggee with a magnificent worldliness. There is a palpable tension between him and Hedda that will only become more seductive with more performances. Yet here, too, there’s a decision to push double-entendres and innuendoes so hard that Brack seems to be using a hatchet instead of a paring knife. The character is very harsh, but also subtle; when he propositions Hedda, there could be a quietness to his lawyerly manipulative ways.
Kaminski’s Hedda wears the grimacing smile of a pageant queen standing on a bed of nails — beauty knows no pain — however harsh her belittling comments to others. The smile comes unglued, and the action starts, when we learn that Ejlert Lovborg, her onetime confidante, and her husband’s onetime rival, has just published a celebrated book on philosophy and society, has written another one said to be even better, and that he has come back into town. Not only is he nearby, but his new muse, the loving, nurturing Thea Elvsted, has just arrived at the house. She wants the Tesmans, Jorgen and Hedda, to promise to receive him at their home — a kindness to be asked for a man who lived life with a very tarnished moral reputation.
Fawn Ledesma plays Thea, this least complicated of characters, with conviction. She loves Lovborg in a passionately Platonic way. She is in awe of his brain, and fulfilled by being his collaborator; the new book is their “child.” Lovborg, deeply thankful to her, at the same time tells Hedda that Thea is “a fool” in matters of the heart.
Both Lovborg and Hedda believe that they operate at a different, higher, more passionate plane than others. We don’t have to admire them for this, but we have to believe in it, and the only real opening we have in the play to understand this crucial reality is the conversation between the two of them. We can only feel Lovberg’s greatness, and Hedda’s, in their exchange. Lovborg is the one person who is at the level Hedda wants for herself. Somehow, we have to see, in this ill-fated couple’s passion for each other however thwarted and squandered, their extraordinary gifts.
Michael Place performs the role of Lovborg arduously, and looks and acts the part of the intense and intellectual romantic lead. There’s something that needs to grow, though, in his conversation with Hedda, whether it is something as simple as taking off the bookish glasses so we can see his full range of expression, or something in the pacing of the language. We need to understand very word.
Without every word, in the moment, we cannot understand the power of their connection and what a terrible hash they have made of things. Hedda has been, as she admits, a coward. Lovborg has dived to the depths of drink and decadence, and while he’s come up for air with a new sanity and sobriety, they are now both at the same impasse of bourgeois propriety. She could have had a great man, and she’s married a milquetoast. He could have had a great woman, and he’s ended with a good one to keep him writing and sober.
He might carry on. But for Hedda, even the possibility of accepting her home with Tesman is ruined by the snake in the garden, Judge Brack, who has literally come in through the garden to threaten her into joining him in a ménage a trois — she won’t even be able to act out domestic propriety, no matter how boring it is to her. What should have been a shared epic, a Nordic saga, between her and Lovborg, is now a bedroom farce.
No wonder Hedda decides to rewrite this farce as tragedy. Both victim and author, she is truly deeply outside the normal moral canon of decent behavior, but she isn’t out of her mind, and there is a conscious logic to this tragedy. She is going, finally, to stop doing what she is supposed to do, and do what she believes is her true destiny.
At this point we have a dance by Hedda, a kind of pantomime of her internal turmoil. Kaminski is game. She takes on the choreography by Olivier Wevers, swirling around her time-frozen fellow actors, finally letting all those odd stretches and jerks earlier in the play coalesce into a full performance. To me, this dance seems off. For Ibsen, Hedda playing a few bars of a wild dance on the piano was enough to communicate this. The dance, intriguing on its own terms, at this point in the play, intentionally or not, seems to portray Hedda as twitching mad, a ridiculous and shattered rag doll deluded by grandiosity.
In the end, Hedda may, in fact, be ridiculous, more train wreck than heroine. But for the play to be meaningful Hedda Gabler has to open us up to the possibility that her passion and ambition have an internal logic, a reason for being, and for not being.
The moralists, and the therapists, anyone and anything that would relegate her to the sanatorium or the workhouse, need to be kept outside for that moment. They’ll be back soon enough.
If you go: Hedda Gabler is one of the four plays in the Intiman Theatre Festival this summer. The Festival will continue through August 26. Tickets available at www.intiman.org.