The Studio’s Hedda nails a classic
Ibsen’s characters come to life in a timeless production of the once-shocking play
Christine Foster Meloni
The great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen wrote Hedda Gabler in 1890 and its first performance took place in Munich in 1891. Since then this play has been continuously performed all over the world.
The current production at the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., proves once again that this play can be staged in 1891 or in 2016 and not lose its relevance for a contemporary audience. Studio’s artistic director David Muse expresses it well. When explaining why a theater known for producing contemporary works would stage Hedda Gabler, he says, “It felt like now to us.”
The key to the play’s success is the figure of Hedda herself. Is she believable? Does her final act make sense? She may be more credible today than in Ibsen’s time. She seems to have shocked audiences more then than now. Julia Coffey is brilliant as Hedda, the daughter of General Gabler.
The set is minimalist and, while it looks modern, it is difficult to determine when the drama takes place. But what particularly stands out is a framed photograph of the general. His far-reaching influence over his daughter is evident throughout the play and gives credibility to her behavior. It bears noting that, even though Hedda is Mrs. Tesman when the curtain goes up, Ibsen chose to call his play Hedda Gabler rather than Hedda Tesman.
It is clear that Hedda never accepts her married state. She realizes while on their honeymoon that she has made a huge mistake in marrying this boring academic. If she had married someone else, however, the outcome would most likely have been the same. She is her father’s daughter, born to be free and in charge of her own life. We watch her as she becomes more and more frustrated with her life until she can tolerate it no longer.
Initially George (or Jorge in this production) appears rather likeable. He seems very sociable and interacts easily with others. But it becomes clear that he does not understand his wife and is completely oblivious to her frustration and mounting unhappiness. He is wrapped up in himself, content and secure that he has won the hand of Hedda Gabler. He begins to turn away from her almost from the start, as he is more interested in doing research in libraries than in spending time with his wife on their six-month honeymoon. After they return, he continues to ignore her as he fears competition for his academic position.
He is also oblivious to the competition for his wife’s attention. Michael Early is a perfect Judge Brack. He is tall, handsome, and subtly charming. He carries himself with great confidence and dignity. Hedda clearly feels his attraction and goes so far as to agree to a “triangle” relationship with him (unbeknownst to her clueless husband, of course). However, he and Hedda share a sinister characteristic, their need for control and their willingness to destroy the lives of others to gain it.
The other male attraction is her former lover, Eljert Lovborg. He returns to town with Thea, an old schoolmate whom Hedda had mercilessly teased at school. She becomes wildly jealous. If she cannot have Lovborg back, she will destroy both him and Thea. She does in fact maliciously contribute to Lovborg’s death. Shane Kenyon skillfully plays Lovborg as a troubled man who wants to do the right thing but lacks the self-assurance to do so. He is deserving of sympathy.
Kimiye Corwin as Thea adeptly strikes the balance between a woman who has always led a life of dependence on others and one who has taken a major step in rebelling in order to have what she wants. She has fled an unhappy marriage and followed her lover. Lovborg may have had a chance at marital happiness and academic success with her as his inspiration and devoted spouse. Hedda would not allow it.
Kimberly Schraf is marvelous in her role as Aunt Julie. She is a refreshingly with-it older unmarried woman who tries hard to support Jorge but does not appear fussy and awkward. Berte, the faithful maid, is also excellent as one who clearly adores Jorge and disapproves of her new mistress with all of her being.
This production casts a clear light on Hedda and shows her unsuccessful struggle to gain control of her life. Her father set her up for a fall, making her believe that she would be able to live as she pleased. We see her gradually falling apart as she desperately tries to establish a role for herself in society. When she realizes that it is impossible, she makes the decision to take her own life, revealing that, in the end, she is the one in charge.
Hedda Gabler runs through June 19. For more info visit www.studiotheatre.org.
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, DC. She values her Norwegian heritage.
This article originally appeared in the June 3, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.