Explaining his intentions concerning Hedda Gabler, Henrik Ibsen, Norway’s preeminent playwright, wrote that he wanted to depict “human emotions and human destinies, upon a groundwork of certain of the social conditions and principles of the present day.” That Hedda Gabler is a work identified by its own author as connected to a specific milieu with societal conditions so far removed from our own – written in 1890, it’s set amid the Victorian bourgeoisie – would seem to relegate it to the category of quaint period piece. Instead, it’s a timeless tragedy of unfulfilled hope and wrong choices.
Even though no modern audience is as shocked as theatergoers in Ibsen’s day were by the goings-on in the Tesman household – particularly the unruly yearnings of its title character – the play still retains the capacity to arouse compassion, even pity, for poor Hedda. She has trapped herself in a conventional marriage, one fraught with prospects she despises and roads ahead which she sees as soul-killing dead ends. Sadly, the current production of the play at Mad Cow Theatre, directed by Eric Zivot, lacks the necessary depth and insight to provoke empathy or even sympathy, so what should be tragic and affecting comes across as a dreary, two-dimensional 19th-century soap opera.
What makes the character of Hedda so intriguing is the dichotomy that Ibsen has created for her: She is a woman aching to rebel against what’s expected of her, yet her own nature weds her implacably to the strictures of her particular time and place. For instance, she maintains that she is immune to love and the pleasures of motherhood, yet in her middle-class soul, that’s exactly what she wants. And when presented with the opportunity to seek pleasure outside her marriage, she cannot bring herself to go against her own sense of conformity. It is this deep division in her being, and her inability to manage her own conflicting desires, that finally drives her mad and sets up the destructive acts that inform the work’s climax and ending.
Yet Melanie Whipple’s Hedda displays no such inner torment, nor any powerful, contradictory emotions, so her depiction of the play’s protagonist comes across as merely angry and spoiled. There is no sense of self-recrimination or guilt in the way she treats husband George, no covert sexual desire for Mark Lainer’s oily and suggestive Judge Brack, and no regret for the chance she threw away when the reprobate Eilert Lovborg, played by Steven Lane, declared his love for her those many years ago.
Likewise, Robb Ross barely scratches the facade of George Tesman’s character. George is not simply a clueless academic with feelings only for his work. He is deeply hurt and mystified by his wife’s behavior and understands that there is something terribly wrong in his marriage, something he cannot change or control. Ross’ George shows no signs of this sadness and betrayal.
Hedda Gabler is a play rich with subtextual undercurrents. Mad Cow’s version, unfortunately, is the quaint, dusty period piece. None of its gems have been mined and brought to the surface.
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