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‘Hedda’ in the Age of Hitler

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Danielle Davy (left) portrays an anxious, young Thea, who is a rival to Hedda Gabler.

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.’

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