- Hedda Gabler
By Henrik Ibsen
Adapted by Andrew Upton
Directed by Christopher Henley
Produced by Washington Shakespeare Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
“Love is a way to sweeten obligation,” says Hedda Gabler (Heather Haney), the anti-Valentine. In Washington Shakespeare Company’s fiercely ambitious production of Ibsen’s 19th-century classic, love and obligation are at war and the winner is death.
The most significant contribution adapter Upton adds to the text is the imposition of naturalistic dialogue: halts, awkward pauses, simultaneous speeches. Aside from asking them to declaim while riding a unicycle, this is about the most difficult thing a playwright can require of actors. When it works – as it does, brilliantly when Hedda confronts, and then comforts, an old lover (Adam Jones Segaller) early in Act two – it is a thing of beauty, and it melts our hearts. When it doesn’t – as it doesn’t, unfortunately, in the scene between Hedda’s aunt-by-marriage (Martha Karl) and the maid (Caitlin Smith) at the very top of the play – it takes us directly out of the play, and back to the dreary, baleful February night awaiting us.
This maddening parade of brilliant touches followed by clunkers infects the entire production. Karl and Smith, their faces hidden by fans, periodically moor themselves on the periphery of the stage, repeating phrases or sounds suggested by dialogue. The effect is eerie, and it reinforces the claustrophobia which afflicts Hedda’s universe. On the other hand, the production uses a standard device – dimming the lights, and playing a minor piano chord – to show the passage of time, and in wretched excess. The amount of time which is supposed to pass during these mini-concertos appeared to me to average about four minutes, and by the tenth repetition the device verged on parody.
The best news of this production is the bravura breakthrough performance by Haney as the title character. Previously confined to smaller supporting roles (in her last WSC production, she delivered stage directions, sometimes in French) Haney here shows great range and precision in successfully presenting one of the most complex women in classical theater. In Upton’s reimagining of the piece, Hedda is a huge engine of calculating self-interest – “a machine on top of an animal,” as Anthony Burgess once said of Napoleon – whose human terror and despair is glimpsed only briefly toward the end of the play. Haney’s Hedda, snarling, rapacious, seductive, witty, and yet a realist whose regret over the choices she made flash through occasionally, ignites the stage every time she opens her mouth.
The second pleasing revelation is the performance of Frank Britton as the übercynical Judge Brack. Britton has hitherto played men of mild decency and dignity with great success, but has not shown terrific range on stage. Here, he gives a crackling performance as a man whose photo would appear next to a dictionary definition of judicial misconduct, reminding us of how much fun it is to be evil. He is obviously ready for the full range of dramatic roles.
This is not to suggest that Haney’s and Britton’s were the only fine performances. We’ve come to expect excellence from Kathleen Akerley, Daniel Eichner and Segaller (who electrified the stage in Rorschach’s Kit Marlowe), and we get it.
In brief, Hedda Gabler is the story of a beautiful woman who has decided to marry Jorgen Tesman (Eichner), an academic of limited skill and ambition who adores her, rather than his brilliant, drunken colleague Lovborg (Segaller), who actually loves her. Tesman, a historian who spent most of his honeymoon doing field work, is desperate for a University appointment so that he can continue to keep Hedda in the style to which she would prefer to become accustomed. Lovborg, who has thrown off the drink with great difficulty, has (with a lover and silent partner played by Akerley) written a fabulously successful treatise and is ready to introduce an even more significant work. Hedda, recognizing that her old lover is a threat to her new husband’s prosperity, reintroduces Lovborg to the sauce, and after that the bad things happen.
Eichner, Segaller, Akerley, Britton, and especially Haney bubble and crackle with mischief and misery – except when the lights go down, we hear the piano chord and, dammit, there’s another eighteen-minute gap. When the production doesn’t get in the way of the performances, Hedda Gabler is almost riveting – but then there is some annoying snafu, and we lose track: there is no toe in Jorgen Tesman’s sock, or Segaller, for no apparent reason, is wearing a see-through shirt, or someone misses a light cue and we watch the last five minutes of the first act with the house lights up.
Ah, well. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” Robert Browning said, “or what’s a heaven for?” Director Henley, reaching for heaven, has landed somewhere closer to earth, but has nonetheless managed to wrestle some wonderful performances out of the process.
Running Time: 2:10, including one intermission.
When: thru March 9. Thursdays through Saturdays at 8; Saturdays and Sundays at 2.
Where: Clark Street Playhouse, 601 S. Clark Street, Crystal City, VA.
Tickets: Thursday tickets are $25; Friday and Sunday tickets are $30; Saturday evening tickets are $35; and Saturday afternoon tickets are PWYC.
Info: To purchase, call 1.800.494.TIXS or visit http://www.washingtonshakespeare.org/