Hedda Gabler, the quintessential mean girl, is strutting her stuff, shooting those pistols and ruining everyone’s life at the H Street Playhouse this month.
For those unfamiliar with Henrik Ibsen’s most famous play and his most complicated protagonist, let me paint you a picture. Gabler is the most beautiful, beguiling woman to enter any room. She’s the most talented person you’ve ever met. She is whip-smart and cunning, a true, ice-cold political strategist. She is also the world’s biggest coward, cowering from public criticism and judgment.
She is a damaged woman, jealous, petty, empty and bored. All of these together make her as dangerous as she is vulnerable.
Since she was first written, the eponymous main character of “Hedda Gabler” has become an icon and perhaps playwright Ibsen’s most perfect heroine, brought to life in his most tightly constructed play.
This is why a new, updated production of the classic is a risk for the director and the actors who chose to pick up the mantle. Gabler has been played by actresses ranging from Ingrid Bergman to Cate Blanchett. It is a brass ring for any performer.
“[Gabler] is the female ‘Hamlet’ without the monologues,” explained Robert McNamara, director of Scena Theatre’s current production of the classic.
Ibsen’s Gabler might be an even more complicated character than Shakespeare’s Danish prince. Though both Hamlet and Hedda struggle with the ghosts of powerful fathers, Hamlet has the luxury of at least speaking with the deceased in person.
Gabler, on the other hand, grapples with the legacy of her father, the late General Gabler, much like the rest of us do our own dead spirits: in our heads.
Ibsen’s play, therefore, is a tightly wound psychological portrait of a dangerous woman on the edge.
The translator Eva Le Gallienne explains in her 1932 introduction: “From a slow beginning the play gradually builds in tempo and the tension mounts until it becomes almost unbearable. One feels as if one were climbing up a spiral — faster and higher, faster and higher — until the final pistol shot, with its sense of relief.”
“Hedda Gabler” must be built firmly on the script with very little deviation, La Gallienne writes.
“The play is so closely knit, the dialogue so pointed, the characters drawn with such fullness yet such economy of means, that not one word — nor one silence — is superfluous; it is dangerous to cut any of Ibsen’s plays, but to cut ‘Hedda Gabler’ is impossible.”
For this updated production, McNamara and Kerry Waters, who plays Gabler, chose Irish playwright Brian Friel’s 2008 translation. Under Friel’s influence, Ibsen loses some of the taciturnity that La Gallienne maintained. The script is downright chatty in areas — more Irish gab than Scandinavian reserve — and a bit too explanatory for this reviewer.
Still, in the hands of a strong cast, the play picks up the tempo and builds the tension, as it should, rather than getting dragged down with too many words.
McNamara has also moved Gabler forward in time, from 1890s Norway to September 1938. Gabler and her new husband, George Tesman , have just returned from their six-month honeymoon traveling through Germany and Czechoslovakia, the center of the gathering storm that would lead in a year to war, and in less than two to the German occupation of Norway.
To produce this “Hedda Gabler” in a politically divided Washington on the eve of an election year is a provocative choice, although McNamara brushes over any political subtext.
“With this play, what I wanted to do was set it in April 1940, but I talked myself out of it,” he says. “That was when the German invasion of Norway happened.”
According to McNamara, he chose the late 1930s because the women were a little freer in their dress and behavior — women in Norway, after all, were able to vote by 1906 — but sexism, like the fascism that was arriving, was woven throughout Norwegian society.
In most productions of “Hedda Gabler,” the lead is played by a young, icy blonde. Waters is an interesting choice to carry the role, not only because she is older but because she is earthy and warm. Waters’ Gabler is reminiscent of Kathleen Turner’s Martha in the recent award-winning production of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Waters plays Gabler with a bit of coquettishness, which can be uncomfortable for the audience precisely because her Gabler is too old to flirt and manipulate in that way. There is something sad, even pathetic about a strong, smart woman using her feminine wiles to control a room.
In other words, this Gabler is too much woman for girlish manipulations, which actually serves to make her more sympathetic. By playing her as an aging coquette, Waters adds another layer to Hedda’s psychological makeup.
“Its hard to move away from the stereotype people have [of Gabler] as a tyrannical, bitchy, self-centered spoiled woman to find her complexity,” Waters explains. “The challenge has been — and I am still looking for it really — expressing her vulnerability versus the veneer. Yeah, she’s strong. She’s headstrong, but she’s very weak in other respects.”
This interpretation works, but it could be stronger. The script should have been updated to acknowledge the age of the principal, especially in contrast to Danielle Davy’s anxious, young portrayal of Thea, Gabler’s rival.
“The two motivating factors in the pattern of Gabler’s behavior are her environment — the stuffy middle class atmosphere in which she finds herself trapped — and her pregnant condition — which her fastidious, twisted nature finds unbearably offensive,” La Gallienne writes. “In a note on the play Ibsen says: ‘Her physiological condition is the cause of psychosis.’
“Under different circumstances surrounded by beauty and wealth, the center of a brilliant, stimulating people, Hedda might have been quite a different person.”
Waters agrees. “Under different circumstances … if she had been given that encouragement, she would have found her own creativity.”
It is precisely this “fallen angel” quality that makes the audience feel sympathy for what should be an entirely unsympathetic character.
Waters is aided on stage by a strong cast, the oily Judge Brack, played charmingly by Jim Jorgensen, has his creepiness heightened when the audience realizes the pin on his lapel is a swastika. Eric Lucas’ Eilert Loevborg masterfully plays Gabler’s brilliant and troubled love. He is magnetic and disturbing.
The settings and costumes, however, did not capture the specific time in history the play was set. It may have been a stronger choice to err on the side of minimalism in color and design rather than reach for something more elaborate.
In the end, it is a testament to the play’s remarkable freshness and modernity that the imperfections of this production are utterly forgotten as the power of the story takes over.
The production opened Thursday and runs through Jan. 29.