Henrik Ibsen, who died in 1906, is generally considered the father of modern drama. He's the first playwright to create tragedies about ordinary people, and he wrote plays in prose rather than poetry. But anyone who considers the title character in Hedda Gabler ordinary ought to have her head examined. While she's no queen, no lord's daughter, no kind of royalty at all, Hedda Gabler has got to be the meanest bitch-goddess girl next door you'll encounter this year.
In case you need any coaching to figure this out, the Alley Theatre production, directed by Gerald Freedman, provides lots of foreshadowing in the form of black Victorian furniture, spooky skeletons of death and misbehaving naked women who signal to us Hedda's descent into the bowels of her own carnal imagination.
The play gets off to a slow start. An exchange between Aunt Julia (Lillian Evans) and maid Berte (Bettye Fitzpatrick) introduces us to the situation. Hedda (Annalee Jefferies) and George Tesman (Kevin Waldron) have been away on honeymoon. The newlyweds have just bought a very expensive house even though George is still waiting to learn if he's gotten the university post he's been promised. This exchange between kindly aunt and loving maid has been sliced up by numerous blackouts into several miniscenes. They indicate to us how long Aunt Julia has had to wait on the slothful, inconsiderate Hedda: a long, long time.
In fact, Hedda, who never wanted to marry, is so bored with her marriage and so black-hearted that she makes auntie wait on purpose. Hedda gets her kicks out of humiliating people, especially kindly old ladies. When she finally does appear she purposefully insults the old woman.
Ibsen, a champion of women's rights, wants us to understand that Hedda's problem is that she has no choices. She marries Tesman, a match even Tesman himself is surprised to have made. But she has run out of options; she waited too long to marry and he's the only eligible bachelor left.
If Hedda were born today, she would be a corporate-takeover snake of the highest order, rolling in dough and happily single. But well-bred, self-serving Victorian ladies had no options. Hedda has to marry or lose her place in society. Ibsen challenges his most liberal audience with a female character who is not very likable and asks us to realize that even selfish women deserve freedom.
Indeed, if Hedda weren't so trapped, she would probably be a lot easier to stomach. Certainly the Hedda that Annalee Jefferies creates is appealing. She's bright, attractive and full of caustic wit. And her boneheaded husband, who spends his days and nights in a tedious academic fog, is no match for her.
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Add to the torturous boredom of Hedda's daily life the sudden appearance of a sexy lover from her past, Eilbert Lovberg (Rufus Collins), and an irritating schoolmate, Mrs. Elvsted (Elizabeth Heflin), and the ingredients are on hand for tragic results. Those guns she loves to shoot come in handy by the end.
Lasting four acts, Hedda Gabler is very long by today's standards. Many will be tempted to bolt after the dreary Act One. But things really do heat up. And with this production, patience pays off. The performances are strong. Hugh Landwehr's dark Victorian set and Pat Collins's shadowy lights add considerably to the creep factor, and Hedda's story is a challenge no self-respecting feminist should miss.
-- Lee Williams
Hedda Gabler runs through March 20 at Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, (713)228-8421. $31-$46.