We’ve all had our days of anxiety, waiting for the proverbial gun to go off. It’s on such days that we most enjoy taking a night out at the theatre, to clear our minds and – go figure – wait four acts for the real gun to fire.
In the minutes before the final bang we sit tense in our seats, locked in a wonderful shared moment of apprehension. We know the gun will go off, but when – and how – has a great touch of surprise to it each time. Henrik Ibsen’s script is turning 122 years old, and with the right touch I dare say it need barely show its age.
In the preceding scenes here, however, this sense of shared excitement is harder to come by. Scena’s take on Hedda Gabler is not unlikeable for its earnest, if sometimes prosaic, efforts, which make modest success of what has become a classic — and classically difficult — work of modern realism. It’s an inoffensive, somewhat underwhelming production, directed by Artistic Director Robert McNamara from an able adaptation by Irish playwright Brian Friel.
McNamara and his cast are fit and equipped, and many of the requisite pieces are in place. In this adaptation, our chin-up heroine Hedda (Kerry Waters, showing leonine toughness) and her new husband Jorgen Tesman (Lee Ordeman) have been scooped up from their native time and place and re-potted in the chilly air of 1938, with war looming heavily on Norway’s horizon. We understand quickly that Hedda has married Tesman, whom Ordeman plays as a bit of a twit with a streak of pipsqueak petulance, out of boredom rather than love. But when Tesman’s envied rival Eilert Lovborg (Eric Lucas) shows up at the house brandishing a manuscript for his breathtaking new book, Hedda suddenly takes her life — and a few others — into her own hands.
The set, by Michael C. Stepowany, is an open parlor with clean, bright hardwood and a scenic view of the mountains out the glass door of the upstage porch. Erik Trester’s sound and projection design adds a crisp, vintage feel. As Hedda’s visitors swirl around her living room, the party pleases our eyes with solid scene-work and well-framed stage pictures.
Ultimately, though, this Hedda strains to engage our imaginations as well, over the course of the night adding up to more of a series of running leaps than an arena for flight. Actors hit their marks often too broadly to believe, bordering at moments on cartoonish. Some flecks of exaggerated behavior seem to stick to what are otherwise solid performances. For inhabiting a play that takes such a small, studied scalpel to the surface of our social behaviors, the group here wears an awful lot on their sleeves.
Those final few minutes, with Hedda gun in hand, hold us rapt because we have come to understand (or at least appreciate) the depths of her unpredictability, and how her fundamental, instinctive needs scrape endlessly against the interior walls of the box in which she finds herself.
There’s perennial fun to be had in condoning her or condemning her — Scena’s poster asks: “Feminist heroine? Victim of circumstance? Or manipulative villain? You be the judge.” — but it’s the deft, unspoken subtleties of Ibsen’s script that allow us to continually discover such a wide range of motives in Hedda’s actions. Waters, in an interesting and worthwhile move, chooses very rarely to smile, emphasizing instead her militant upbringing with a series of severe, keen-eyed gazes like brick walls, off of which her guests — and not the least her husband — are sent bouncing like tennis balls.
The hard-boiled tack Waters takes yields some interesting results, and allows for several great moments of upset when the sinister Judge Brack (played with rewarding grin and grandeur by Jim Jorgensen) gets under Hedda’s skin and tugs at whichever enigmatic curtain he can grasp. Particularly toward the end of the play, Waters and Jorgensen are in a league of their own, trading secret looks and thoughts with life-and-death urgency. In these moments, the show comes right up to the edge of emotional plausibility, and we start seeing the characters more clearly than the performances themselves. Which makes us wish, more and more, that earlier scenes shared such nuance and precision.
If perhaps the ship’s not the sturdiest ever built, it does certainly stay afloat, and McNamara’s sense of rhythm paired with some smart, affecting sequences from the actors make for an enjoyable enough evening. Our heroine’s journey, in particular, is mercifully opaque. Poor George Tesman, after discovering one of Hedda’s terrible deeds, wails, “My gentle Hedda couldn’t do something as immoral as that, could she?” Judging by the rare smile that spreads across Hedda’s face minutes later, we are pleased to discover that yes, perhaps she could.
Written by Henrik Ibsen
Adapted by Brian Friel
Directed by Robert McNamara
Produced by Scena Theatre
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running time: Approx. 2 hr and 45 min with one intermission