“Hedda Gabler” in 1963, Washington, D.C.

Photo: St. John Blondell Sarah Ferris as Thea is menaced by Katie Culligan as Hedda.

Photo: St. John Blondell
Sarah Ferris as Thea is menaced by Katie Culligan as Hedda.

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

The pre-show music set the stage. “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Summertime,” “Ain’t That a Shame,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You.” Hedda Gabler had been transported to Washington, D.C., in 1963.

Why did Michael Avolio, Director of the Quotidian Theater Company’s production of Ibsen’s classic, choose 1963? Because it was the year Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique sparked the second wave of feminism in the U.S. In her book Friedan highlighted the tremendous unhappiness and dissatisfaction American housewives were experiencing.

Ibsen’s play fits very comfortably into 1963. Hedda would have found herself as trapped a woman at this time in Washington, D.C. (or any other American city) as she had in Christiania (Oslo) in 1890.

The more contemporary setting does not overwhelm; it is tastefully done. In addition to period music, there are subtle touches such as the Life magazine with Medgar Evers’s wife on the cover, Aunt Julia’s cat-eye glasses, George’s glasses with oversized black frames (think Harry Crane on Mad Men), and Hedda’s bright red cocktail dress coordinated with the Judge’s vintage tuxedo.

The minor changes to Ibsen’s script do not jar, while the limited references to Washington amuse locals but might go unnoticed by outsiders.

Katie Culligan effectively reveals the inner workings of Hedda’s mind. She tries to calm her raging desires, but her discontent is overwhelming. Her unhappiness often causes her to be unkind to others. She is a frustrated woman who is only too aware that her role in society depends almost exclusively on her husband’s social position. Why did she choose George?

George, played by Brian McDermott, makes you immediately understand that Hedda chose the wrong man. (At the end of the play, however, you wonder if any man would have been right for Hedda.) George is ridiculously proud of his conquest of Hedda. He considers himself lucky that she chose him when she had so many other choices.

Hedda did not choose George for his personal qualities, but for his anticipated future success as a professor at Georgetown University. He is an unattractive man, socially inept, and a dull academic who is only interested in dusty old academic journals. McDermott ably plays his role. You cannot help but like George, although he just doesn’t understand his wife. He bumbles around in his oblivious state, not realizing that she longs for freedom and a sense of control.

Francisco Reinoso is a marvelous Judge Brack: smooth and cool, attractive but wicked. He wants a relationship with Hedda, but on his terms. Self-interest guides him at all times. She is attracted to him, but mostly as a more interesting alternative to her tedious husband. He reminded me a bit of Dustin Hoffman, which added to his appeal.

And then there is Elliott Lovborg, played by Christian Sullivan. He is also a writer, an academic but oh so different from George! He is charming and yes, definitely a hunk. He and Hedda are undeniably attracted to each other (they do have a past together) but there is a catch. He has some sort of relationship with Hedda’s old schoolmate, Thea. Hedda is wild with jealousy and exerts her power to undermine their relationship.

Sarah Ferris is very effective as Thea, who appears weak and rather mousey when she first appears on the scene. She gains strength, however, as she proves how steadfast she can be in pursuing a better life for herself. She has had the courage to leave her abusive husband and to seek more fulfilling relationships.

George’s Aunt Julia (played by Laura Russell) is another interesting female character who contrasts with both Hedda and Thea. She initially seems a rather foolish old maid, too sentimentally attached to her adored nephew George, but she too earns respect with her dedication to improving the lives of those around her. Her altruism is in stark contrast to Hedda’s egoism.

Kecia A. Campbell plays a rather minor role as Berta the maid, but she certainly adds to the success of the production. Her face is an open book. She cannot hide her feelings and judgments. It is obvious that she adores George and strongly disapproves of Hedda.

The Quotidian Theatre Company is to be commended for a wonderful production of this timeless classic. The whole cast expertly defined and portrayed their characters, remaining faithful to the playwright. And the play’s setting in a new time and place worked well.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 12, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.