Protofeminist Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen turned from the heavy-handed moral plays of his time to write audience-shocking works known for their realistic, sympathetic treatment of both individual and social ills, from sexually transmitted diseases to the plight of restless women trapped by Victorian values and expectations. In Hedda Gabler, Jurgen and his new wife Hedda have just returned from an extended honeymoon, and already Hedda is bored with married life — her bookish husband, a house she didn’t really want, tiresomely kind in-laws. So she resorts to the only entertainment she can dream up, namely the cold-blooded manipulation of the people around her, who include some unexpected visitors from her and Jurgen’s respective pasts. She’s like a cat who plays with a mouse simply because she can, not out of any need to either feed or defend herself, and the results are deadly.
In the current Actors Ensemble production, they’re also stiff and strained. Although nobody would mistake Ibsen’s work for a laugh riot, there are flashes of light and wit in his plays.
Here, all is misery — the title character a barely contained mess of self-conscious tics, the other characters bowing and quailing about her. Whatever made Hedda the sought-after beauty who surprised everyone by choosing a man below her station is not evident in director Stan Spenger’s largely cosmetic adaptation; while it is possible to make this restless woman believable, attractive, even sympathetic if not likable, this is not that production. That’s frustrating, because it’s clear the director and cast are honestly connected to what the play is about — but not to their characters, or to a subtle and varied exploration of Ibsen’s text.
Not to put this all on Wendy Welch’s slender shoulders and clogged voice. Virtually all the cast members deliver their lines in a stilted fashion that may be meant to convey a sense of how brittle the characters and their relationships are, but it just comes off clumsy. Whether a moment is light or heavy, the words stumble out at the same Shatneresque rate. The interactions are unconvincing, and the three dyads that we’re told have some romantic history show no spark of it; other than the moment when Jurgen’s old rival Eilert Lovborg shows up, it’s as if these people have never seen each other before. The stage movement, such as the endless fidgeting with a footstool, keeps the actors in motion and little more.
The liveliest character is the ultra-oily Judge Brack (Louis Schilling), especially in the scenes where he’s alone with Hedda and they’re sparring over whether he will become her lover. But the choice to make Brack completely sleazy in the moment when he’s got the upper hand on Hedda is overplayed and obvious, like too much of this ambitious effort.