Hedda is, always has been, and always will be, a piece of work. She languishes in pools of longing, waiting and “expectation.” Everyone has experienced such moments of “is this all there is??” Hedda lives them outright, in 19th century bustling gowns, and despite being a rather unlikable character, she evokes recognition, clarity, and moments of similitude for many of us-100 years, a cultural divide and an ocean away notwithstanding.
Olney’s production of Hedda Gabler brings this fascinating character to life in an intimate and nicely designed drawing room (by James Kronzer) in the cozy Mulitz-Gudelsky Theater. Playing a completely different character from the Heiress, Julie-Ann Elliott again brings believability and vigor to the role. Yes, she’s prickly, a bully, and you wouldn’t want her walking behind you in a dark staircase or alleyway, but from all indications, she would be delightfully engaging at a dinner party or social gathering. And that’s the problem or the challenge, finding something to be engaged in while Hedda paces, stalks about the set and fumes, lost in her own interior battling world.
The rest of the cast is certainly fetching and engaging, especially the interesting casting against type choices- Christopher Lane as the nebbish, new husband George Teasman? He can hunch his shoulders all he wants, stutter and stammer, retrace his steps nervously, and stare blankly into space, but he’s still a hunk. Same with the beloved baritone voiced Micheal W. Howell who some of us could sit and listen to all day. But not Hedda who considers being with either a fate worse than death, and so she chooses the fatal shot and takes herself out of the game permanently rather than stifle her will and creativity with boring contemplation. The problem or challenge is that both of these two options seem rather okay, so, why can’t Hedda just settle like a normal woman, 19th century or 21st for the best that she can do, which might be as good as it gets?
The other female characters are quite engaging–Anne Stone as loving Aunt Julie is an automatic compassion magnet. She has essentially raised George, recalls his childhood moments with fondness, and tenderly cares for an ailing sister. Could she be even more diametrically opposed to the selfish, self-absorbed Hedda? Even young Mrs. Elvsted is engaging in her simple-minded quest for passion and love. Nicely rendered by Maia DeSanti, she is genuine and direct, and we care for her well being even while we watch her make stupid mistake after wrong move. She’s young, impressionable and vulnerable, all the trappings of engaging, caught in the spell of the irresistible and brilliant Eilert Lovborg played by Jeffries Thaiss who defines his character in a few quick strokes and is definitely cast by type-just try taking your eyes off that one.
So how has the character Hedda inspired writers and actresses over the years? Her strong will and brutal honesty draw a steady stream of admirers eager to tackle the role. Cate Blanchett just sank her teeth into it in New York this spring. Hedda is the rare piece that can liberate an actress from the shackles of having to “make nice.” She’s tough as nails, a bona fide bitch with intellect and attitude, but with a twisted longing for passion, excitement and honor. The role is a proving ground for an actress to demonstrate she can display crazed insanity without appearing insane, brutality without seeming too mean, and obnoxious discontentment without perpetually scowling or alienating the audience-quite a tall order. Julie-Ann Elliott is just about there. Her Hedda is fearlessly intensive in mind and movement-with flashing, piercing eyes, she’s constantly strategizing her next move, and each step is strong and deliberate. What’s problematic is that she has to take so many, steps, that is. Perhaps the director, Halo Wines, is trying to relay that Hedda is caged up, locked in by cultural/gender constraints with no way out, so like a lioness she has to pace the same trodden path over and over. Perhaps. But after awhile it starts to feel wearying and draining. The pacing also slows to a halt in the first set change to move the big, heavy piano-which looks great in the early scene, but creates too much of a diversion to move.
Olney’s production of Hedda Gabler explores the nuances of this revered classic through its not to be missed casting choices. Despite some sluggish spots, this is a rock solid production with the steady brilliance of a true star in the making.