“Hedda Gabler” by Henrik Ibsen, Main Stage West, Sebastopol CA
Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo
Members, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
Photos by Eric Chazankin
The Honeymoon’s Over
Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen has crafted some of the strongest women characters in theatre. The strongest of them all, and perhaps the most difficult to portray, may be Hedda Gabler. To say she’s a troubled woman is an understatement. She’s an intriguing mix of sociopath, temptress, dominatrix and neurotic, all wrapped up in a very decorative package. Ibsen’s play of the same name premiered in Germany in 1891 and was not well received, and no surprise. Few characters demonstrate such a calculated lack of empathy (with the possible exception of Regina in “The Little Foxes”), and few endings are as dismal. But the play went on to become a classic. The adaptation of Ibsen’s play by Brian Friel, now being presented at Main Stage West, is an intricate story filled with taut suspense and fine performances by every member of the cast.
The story takes place entirely in the drawing room of the fashionable villa that Hedda (Ilana Niernberger) shares with her new husband, George Tesman (Peter Downey), an academic with hopes for a professorship at the University. They have just this day returned from a six-month long honeymoon. George’s Aunt Juliana (Kate Bickley) and the housekeeper Bertha (Missy Weaver) are bustling about in preparation for the couple’s return. Paying a visit later are Hedda’s school chum Thea (Dana Scott), good friend Judge Brack (John Craven), and successful author Eilert Loevborg (John Browning), who also happens to be Hedda’s old flame. The storyline is dense and complex, and psychological intrigue abounds, inviting analysis. Through it all, Hedda plays mind games with everyone within reach. She seduces, manipulates, and even takes pot-shots with pistols at an unsuspecting guest. But her biggest conquest, and most horrifying acts, are yet to come.
Niernberger plays Hedda as rigid, humorless and brittle, but nonetheless fascinating to watch. You absolutely cannot take your eyes off of her while she is onstage, which is most of the time. Her predations on those around her, and their reactions, are the driving force of the story. It’s a strong and well-crafted performance, but seems to lack a certain nuance and development. Downey plays George as amiable and ambitious with a personal sense of urgency, giving his character bright energy and charm, in nice contrast to his wife. Bickley as Aunt Julia and Weaver as Bertha lend warmth and a sense of family. They both give nicely balanced and engaging performances. Scott as Thea is like a cute, jittery squirrel with a terrible secret. She plays her role as an inhibited genius who alternates between heightened awareness and confusion. Craven as the slightly lustful Judge Brock underplays the part as he tries to figure Hedda out. George’s academic (and romantic) rival Loevborg is played by Browning with deliberation and vulnerability, slowly unraveling before our eyes.
As director Beth Craven says, Hedda is “a woman possessed – by love she cannot express, by jealousy she cannot acknowledge, by endless boredom with family life, and by the relentless energy of her spirit that will not be tamed and has no outlet.” Craven’s use of overlapping dialog lends fluidity and realism, which heightens the sense of drama. Simple staging and quite lovely sets by Craven and MSW’s resident scenic artist David Lear, set off nicely with quality costumes by Gail Reine, make this play thoroughly absorbing, artful and enjoyable.
When: Now through October 5, 2014
8:00 p.m Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays
5:00 p.m. Sundays
Tickets $15 to $25 (Thursdays are “pay what you will” at the door only)
Where: Main Stage West
104 North Main Street
Sebastopol, CA 95472