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Astifled spirit
2nd Story’s risky Hedda Gabler
Hedda Gabler
By Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Ryan Maxwell and Ed Shea. Directed by Ed Shea. With Rae Mancini, Rendueles Villalba, Katherine Sheridan, Maureen Bennett, Mike Zola, Joe Ouellette, and Peggy Hoagland. At 2nd Story Theatre through April 25.

As Henrik Ibsen showed in his middle-period plays of social realism, which furrowed a theatrical brow at conventions and hypocrisies, the hammer of society tended to come down hard on an individual who stuck out in Victorian Norway. Although our emotional involvement may be limited in the current abridged version of Hedda Gabler, we are well reminded that a stifled spirit can cause great damage in every direction.

The kickoff work in Ibsen’s four-play exploration of social restrictions and their consequences was the 1879 A Doll’s House, in which an erstwhile dutiful wife famously leaves her husband at the end. Twelve years later, Hedda demonstrated — to dumbstruck German audiences a year after its publication in Oslo — that when there is no escape from such a confined, proper middle-class life, a woman can explode under the pressure.

Apart from feeling accused, the good burghers in those first audiences were mystified by meeting such a remorseless anti-heroine. Selfish, cruel, scheming, this day in the life of Hedda Gabler is a flesh-and-bile train wreck we are fascinated to watch happen.

Hedda (Rae Mancini) has just returned from an extravagant six-month honeymoon with George Tesman (Rendueles Villalba). He is relying on a professorship appointment to be able to afford the indulgences that his bride never hesitates to demand. She is the beautiful daughter of the late General Gabler, you see, and expects such things as her birthright. (Above a mantelpiece is a portrait of the general, a reminder of her status, the only set element on a stage that consists of two runways that cross like a busy intersection.)

Tesman’s Aunt Julia (Katherine Sheridan), a courteous and forbearing contrast to the title character, keeps bringing up the observation that her nephew’s wife may be pregnant. The prospect of having to care about someone besides herself is just one worry underlying Hedda’s bad mood. She is also annoyed that her husband’s imminent appointment has been jeopardized by a former suitor. Ejlert Lovborg (Joe Ouellette) has recently published a brilliant volume on western civilization. A recovering alcoholic, he pays what he hopes will be a quick visit in search of Thea Elvsted (Maureen Bennett), a married woman he has run off with. The couple both fall into the web Hedda apparently always has ready for anyone unwary enough to confide in her.

But Ibsen doesn’t go for the easy conflict of having Tesman and Lovborg go after the same job (or the same wife). No, this is Hedda’s play, and just as she declares that she has no interest in the financial problems she has inflicted on her husband, so too the playwright would much prefer dealing with intractable psychological torments than with fixable situations.

Mancini presents Hedda as ever-canny and with the barest veneer of charm; Hedda has no occasion to pour it on when we see her, though, since everyone in the play is either her potential victim or, in one case, an antagonist. Nevertheless, at mid-play Hedda declares: "For once in my life, I want power over another human being," as though the harm she has already accomplished is not enough.

This play makes us greedy for understanding what makes these people tick. To that end, with most of these characterizations a little offsetting trait would have gone a long way to add needed tension beneath surfaces. As Judge Brack, a friend of the family, Mike Zola has a built-in hypocrisy to work with, and he nicely plays the social probity and dignity of the judge’s status against his lurking reptilian lecherousness. To a similar extent, Ouellette’s Lovborg and Bennett’s Thea have desperate circumstances for the actors to bring out and with which to round out the characters. But I needed some subterranean activity occasionally steaming to the surface of all these people. Perhaps a glimpse of vulnerability in Hedda — certainly nothing mawkish, just some humanizing depth. Perhaps a core of dignity — backbone — in Tesman, so that we don’t dismiss him as a hapless fool.

Some of the problem has to do with the play being trimmed of longwinded speechifying, to keep it well under 11/2 hours. But opportunities to deepen the characters couldn’t help but be thrown away in the course of condensing. This adaptation is hardly Ibsen Lite, but neither is it the stout brew the playwright originally concocted for us.

That this production didn’t work well for me hardly means that it won’t provide more satisfactions for other theatergoers. Taking risks, as director Ed Shea and the 2nd Story ensemble have been doing for years, invites the occasional stumble in the course of walking tall. To my mind, that says less about theatrical failure than about bravery.

Issue Date: April 9 - 15, 2004
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