In Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, the onus is on the audience to figure out the titular character. Directors and actors are there to tilt the interpretation one way or another. But Scena’s Theatre current production of Hedda Gabler, now at H Street Playhouse, doggedly refrains from any sort of judgment. That is not to say, however, that Scena’s take is complex or thought-provoking. On the contrary, the actors are either too mannered or too wooden, which results in an absence of insight.
The first scenes are a textbook example of Chekov’s Gun. Hedda (Kerry Waters) and her husband George (Lee Ordeman) return to Oslo after their honeymoon. From the get-go, George dissatisfies Hedda (her only pleasure are her father’s pistols, which inevitably appear later). George is an academic who dreams of scholarly excellence, and he’s also a man-child who dotes on his aunt (Rena Cherry Brown) and his wife equally.
The other men in Hedda’s life do not fare much better than George. Judge Brack (Jim Jorgensen), a longtime friend of George, is a pretentious lothario who flirts with Hedda whenever her husband is away. Hedda easily rebuffs Brack, but her other suitor, George’s colleague Eilert (Eric Lucas), leaves a long-lasting impression. Eilert’s passion and intellect eclipse George’s, even if he’s also a drunk (Lucas is pitch-perfect as the brilliant brute). After the three men have a night of booze-soaked excess, Hedda gets her hands on Eilert’s manuscript, using it to manipulate the three men. Her scheme also devastates Thea (Danielle Davy), Eilert’s long-suffering lover, who was already on the cusp of madness.
Under the direction of Robert McNamara, each cast member has a unique quirk. This strategy creates terrific stand-alone moments, particularly during monologues, but there is a gnawing dearth of chemistry. It’s as if the cast waits for their opportunity to chew the scenery, and pay little attention to what the others say. As Bertha, George’s longtime servant, Mary Suib’s histrionic performance is distracting. Her character goes through genuine grief, yet Suib lacks the chops to sell the sorrow. Ironically, there are times where the chemistry problem works in the play’s favor. Ordeman’s George, for example, is fecklessly emasculated and Hedda’s contempt of him is well-founded. Still, when the play inexorably veers toward tragedy, the production cannot grip the audience and any emotional impact is lost.
Originally published in 1890, Scena’s production of Hedda Gabler moves the play to the late 1930s. The time-shift does little to expand on Ibsen’s drama, aside from the costumes and set design, which are appropriately modern. Other flourishes are downright perplexing. McNamara introduces bombastic classical music during a crucial scene (Ibsen’s text asks for a “frenzied waltz”); used here, the music only protracts the inevitable violence, thereby lessening its shock. Minor choices, like Judge Brack’s use of American idioms, are even more bizarre since the characters already speak English. Jorgensen clearly has fun with the role of Brack – his suave movements and wicked smile separate him from George/Eilert – yet Brian Friel’s adaptation does Jorgensen and the other cast members few favors.
Issues with the supporting cast notwithstanding, Ibsen’s drama succeeds and fails through its characterization of Hedda. Frustratingly, McNamara and Waters offer few hints. When Hedda implores Eilert to find nobility through suicide, for example, it’s unclear whether her intentions are genuine or cruel. The program cover of Hedda Gabler asks us, “Feminist heroine? Victim of circumstance? Or manipulative villain?” These descriptors are not original or accidental, as they appear in the opening paragraphs the corresponding Wikipedia Article. Lacking a proper citation, the Wikipedia reference summarizes the problems plaguing Scena’s production: ambiguity without thought will not provoke lingering questions from the audience. Because the production eschews perspective altogether, there is little interest in finding my own.
Hedda Gabler is at H Street Playhouse until January 29th. Buy tickets here!