Hedda Gabler, the theatrical classic by Henrik Ibsen first produced in 1891, is a forerunner of modern drama. Its revival here demonstrates that manipulation, chicanery and deception are not contemporary inventions.
The handsome set designed by the play's director, L. Robert Westeen, effectively sets the stage for a period piece, as the leading and dominant character of Hedda Gabler confronts the conventions and confining elements of life among the gentry in Oslo, Norway. Hedda returns from an extensive honeymoon - she married to settle, not for love - to discover that finances are tighter than expected, and some of the expected benefits are not available.
The role has attracted some of the world's great actresses, for Hedda as written is a commanding figure, independent of mind, intelligent, forceful, and manipulative, with the men in her life drawn to her like moths to a flame; I saw the moths, but not the flame.
Ruth S. McCleskey plays Hedda, and has the slender beauty that makes her plausible as a heart-breaker, but lacks the stage charisma to make Hedda exciting. It's clear that Hedda wears the pants in the family, but Sam Martinez as her husband George Tesman (a sincere, ambitious but mediocre scholar) has the acting skills to make Tesman credible and varied, while the role could have faded into the wallpaper in lesser hands.
Casey Coale portrays family friend Judge Brack, providing a casual, understated air to the proceedings, and never breaking stride even as he resorts to blackmail to further his romantic purposes. The third moth is Eilert Lovborg, recovering alcoholic and former lover of Hedda, who has unexpectedly had a success with a recent book, and has just finished the manuscript to a sequel which promises to be even better. Lovborg, portrayed by Brian Heaton, enters the action late, and at first appears to be as conventional as the others, but in a later entrance reveals the passion expected of a bohemian artist.
There is a real plot and real developments - the manuscript plays a significant part, as does a pistol, following Anton Chekhov's oft-quoted dictum: "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired." Amelia McCunn plays Mrs. Elvsted, who has left her husband to assist Lovborg in his writing, in his recovery, and in other ways; she creates an authentic, likable character. Karla Brandau plays Aunt Julia, and communicates a loving heart in the midst of sharks circling. Michel Brown, as the household maid Berta, has little to do, but does it well.
At the core of the play, of course, is Hedda, a complex character whose motivations are sufficiently murky that they have kept scholars busy for more than a century. She is subject to any number of interpretations (I wish a young Bette Davis had played Hedda on film, but we do have The Letter), but McCleskey and director Westeen have settled for an air of petulance and occasional flashes of unconvincing charm.
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Westeen keeps the pace brisk and the stage movements fluid, but there is one singular peculiarity - in her scenes alone with the young and attractive Mrs. Elvsted, Hedda touches her on almost every line - the word "pawing" comes to mind - as though avid for a Sapphic relationship. It is deliberate, unsubtle, and very distracting. Hedda is complex enough without this added dimension, and whether the invention of the actor or the director, it warrants further thought. The lighting, by Lauren Hainley, is excellent.
Company Onstage is to be commended for reviving an important, influential drama that has stood well the test of time. It is well-acted, and well-worth visiting, though some of its potential for passion is muted.
Hedda Gabler continues through February 18, presented by Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square. For information or tickets, call 713-726-1219 or www.companyonstage.org.