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by Lauren Yarger
A pounding rain drives out all other sound to create an ever-intensifying, claustrophobic isolation that itself becomes a desperate scream.
This opening sequence, the brainchild of Director Jennifer Tarver and sound and light designers Fitz Patton and Robert Thompson, sets Hartford Stage for the oppressive life consuming Hedda Gabler (Roxana Hope) in this stylish season opener of Henrik Ibsen's play. It has a new adaptation here by Jon Robin Baitz (Other Desert Cities and creator of TV's "Brothers & Sisters") from a literal translation by Anne-Charlotte Hanes Harvey.
Hedda and her new husband, academic George Tesman (John Patrick Hayden), have just returned to their Norway home following a lavish six-month honeymoon. Insecure about his ability to keep the daughter of famous General Gabler in the fashion to which she is accustomed, George purchases the mansion he thinks she loves. He hopes an anticipated promotion to full professorship will pay for its costs. His Aunt Julia (Kandia Chappell) thinks he is in over his head, however, and even has to borrow against her pension to furnish the place for him. Oblivious, Hedda doesn't hide her disdain for the doting aunt, especially when Julia starts hinting that the young couple should start getting in the family way.
Hedda feels trapped enough by a marriage to a man she finds totally boring and has no interest in bearing his children. In her frustration, she amuses herself by stringing her naïve husband along while entertaining a dalliance with Judge Brack (Thomas Jay Ryan). She also interferes in a love affair between her old schoolmate. Thea Elvsted (Sarah Topham) and George's academic rival, Eilert Lovborg (Sam Redford). The constraints of turn-of-the-20th-century society and its limitations on a woman's ability to control her own life soon take their toll and tragedy ensues.
First published in 1890, the strong female, main character of Hedda Gabler was almost unknown. Hope's Hedda is even more formidable than what we are used to seeing portrayed in the 21st century. She is no shrinking violet who is afraid to speak her mind. This Hedda is angry, fed up and cruel – almost the embodiment of a resounding resentment of how things were: women were property of their husbands, couldn't own property, couldn't vote and had little hope outside of marriage. (Hope, who played Caroline Cushing in Broadway's Frost/Nixon, is making her Hartford Stage debut.)
Times have changed, but Hedda's frustration still rings true in a contemporary society where political headlines about a "war on women" and protests that decisions on women's reproductive rights are made predominantly by men dominate today's headlines. Fabio Toblini's costumes might be period (with some stunningly exquisite gowns) but Eugene Lee's set uses modern trusses to houses pieces of furniture and props, indicating that not everything is fixed yet. The frames of the Tesman house are as empty as Hedda's ambitions.
Helping to take The Edge off of Hedda's sharpness is a fine supporting cast. Hayden's George is unsuspecting, but less so by design than most Georges we've seen. Here, he also seems to be a victim of the time. He doesn't seem to intend to inhibit his wife – he just has never been told a woman might want something more than to be his wife and to sit watching adoringly while he researches old manuscripts. We get the feeling that if Hedda actually were truthful with her husband about how she feels, he might try to help as his motivations are to love her and keep her happy.
Ryan is nicely understated as the sleazy judge who recognizes the power he has over a woman and who seeks to manipulate Hedda. Chappell does a nice job morphing between a self-assured woman when basking in George's approval and protection and total insecurity in the presence of Hedda's strength. Tarver, the award-winning Canadian director associated with the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, succeeds in balancing the leads with the more vulnerable characters of Thea and Lovborg and no one gets lost in the melee. Anne O'Sullivan deserves a tip of the cap as well for holding her own in the minor part of the maid.
A quickening of the pace would help reduce the show's run time, posted as two hours, but which actually is two and a half (particularly in the first act and between scene changes that feature blaring music by Patton and labor-intensive movement of furniture).
Hedda Gabler runs through Sept. 23; Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; select Wednesday at 6:30 pm; matinees Wednesday and Saturday at 2 pm; Tickets range from $26.50 to $93.50 and are available by calling 860-527?5151 or visiting www.hartfordstage.org.
Pictured: Roxanna Hope and John Patrick Hayden. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.