Desperate Housewife

Moving Hedda Gabler ahead several generations gives the play new life.

Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, first published in 1890, is a play about the havoc wrought by an out-of-control woman, a woman who's torn and driven by impulses she herself cannot understand or control. Hedda combines a certain romantic magnificence -- think Shelley and Byron, think Emily Brontë's wild, wild Cathy on the moors with Heathcliff -- with self-absorption and small-minded neurotic jealousy. But when you set her shenanigans in a 1950s context, as director Warren Sherrill does for the current Paragon Theatre production, strange things happen. You no longer feel oceanic impulses moving through the text; instead, the action seems shaped by the sheer kitschiness of that strangest of decades. The house that Hedda has inveigled her scholarly fussbudget of a husband, George Tesman, into buying for her -- and that now bores her silly -- is furnished with the plain, flat-surfaced Danish-style pieces of the era. There's a massive radio that plays such hits as "Who's Sorry Now," "Que Sera Sera" and Nat King Cole's "Mona Lisa." A hoop petticoat makes a stiff triangle of Hedda's emerald-green dress. Ibsen's era was stuffy, closed, somnolent and conformist; '50s America, while equally closed and conformist, was the consumerist, plastic-coated version.

Here's the plot: Tesman, an academic to the core, has married the glamorous and demanding Hedda Gabler and is rapidly going into debt to support her whims. He was raised by a pair of aunts, one of whom we never see but who spends the entire play dying offstage. The other, Juliana, presents him with his old embroidered slippers as a wedding gift. The worldly Judge Brack, a source of information and power, informs Tesman that his much-needed academic appointment is in jeopardy: A long-ago rival, Eilert Lovborg, whose career drowned in booze and wild living, has made a comeback with the help of the quiet, supportive (and unhappily married) Thea Elvsted. His new book is brilliant, and he's at work on a second that will secure his reputation as one of the major thinkers of his time. The university may prefer to hire him.

Hedda has had an affair with Lovborg, as she has with just about every male who's ever come into her orbit, and she doesn't like his new persona. She wants him back the way he was: brilliantly self-destructive, drunk on thought and poetry and, as she says, wearing "vine leaves in his hair." If Ibsen's Hedda was longing for Heathcliff, Sherrill's doubtless imagines Marlon Brando or James Dean.

Barbra Andrews and Jarrad Holbrook in Hedda 
Gabler.
Barbra Andrews and Jarrad Holbrook in Hedda Gabler.

This interpretation works on its own terms. It rescues the play from the museum and makes the dialogue (a fluid translation by Doug Hughes) feel relevant and contemporary. We're not bored for a second. Barbra Andrews gives us a skilled and fascinating Hedda; we enjoy hating her and we enjoy watching her manipulate and humiliate others. What's lost is any hint of a great and heaving soul beneath Andrews's green-clad bosom. Nor is her Hedda particularly seductive, although you can see why her vitality and sense of purpose might ensnare the men around her. If anything, she comes across like one of those bitchy mean girls everyone hates in movies about high school.

And yet this production has some soul. Oddly enough, it's supplied by two characters usually considered so boring as to be almost invisible. Josh Hartwell makes poor Tesman every bit as blithery as the script requires, but there's something concerned and sweet, a kind of suppressed awareness flickering beneath his obtuse exterior. Thea is often a bovine presence, someone the wily Hedda can play like a violin. But Kate Avallone gives Thea spine and an inner life. When she says that Lovborg's manuscript is as much her child as his, you believe that she contributed not only secretarial services, but also spirit and ideas.

Patty Mintz Figel as Juliana perfectly inhabits the space between smothering aunt and kindly old woman. Jarrad Holbrook gives Judge Brack an edge of menace that's a bit more reminiscent of the thug he played recently in The Caretaker than the solidly middle-class, middle-aged gentleman of business the script calls for. Jeremy Make's Eilert Lovborg is tall, handsome and striking. You can't quite tell if his buttoned-up stiffness represents the actor's shyness or the character's Herculean effort to keep himself under control, but it's a compelling and successful portrait.

Scholars argue about whether Hedda Gabler is a tragedy. It ends like one, with the interesting major characters dead or gone and the faithful retainers left to carry on the mundane tasks of everyday life. But somehow, as Tesman and Thea begin their years-long task of piecing together Lovborg's lost manuscript from her notes and you think about how his pedantic passion for order and detail will mesh with her faithful love for both the manuscript and its author, it doesn't feel like a defeat. Hedda is capable only of destruction, horrified even at the idea of gestating a child within her body. But here are two people -- humbler and smaller-spirited, perhaps -- engaged in a genuine act of creation.

I don't know if Ibsen would have recognized this Hedda Gabler, but if you can accept the play as black comedy rather than tragedy, you'll find it loads of fun.

 
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