Much thought, care and expertise has been expended on the current Saint Louis University staging of Henrik Ibsen's groundbreaking 1890 drama Hedda Gabler. In telling the story of the final days of a neurotic woman whose life is imploding before our very eyes (in large measure owing to her own malevolent narcissism), the production lures us — nay, dares us — to enter Hedda's twisted and tormented world.
Even before the play begins, the first thing that captures our attention as we enter the theater is the sense of space. The playing area feels twice as large as it normally does for SLU productions. The occasional piece of furniture adds to the magnitude, lending a spare Scandinavian feel to the Norwegian home of George and Hedda Tesman. As directed by Gary Wayne Barker, Paris McCarthy's Hedda moves about the cavernous drawing room almost as if it were an ice rink. Often when others are present, she veritably glides to whichever part of the room will allow her to be most isolated.
This sunken drawing room, efficiently designed by Jim Burwinkle, is entered by descending three steps. Hedda, whose obsessive ambition is to "have power over someone's destiny," is able to stand atop these steps like a puppeteer manipulating her marionettes below. Not that she's ever really in control: The muntins in the large windows resemble cell bars, an omnipresent reminder of the imprisoned existence (albeit self-imposed) that Hedda is enduring.
Lou Bird's costumes further clarify the ambiguity that tortures Hedda. In direct contrast to all this empty space, her dressing gown is as constricting as a straightjacket. Her blue evening gown, as eggshell soft as "the blue sky" that is the first target of Hedda's superior (if misguided) marksmanship, emphasizes McCarthy's cobra-like neck. Her venomous Hedda seems ready to strike at any moment. But of course she never does. Hedda may be a bully, but she is a cunning bully. She may do and say cruel things, but for most of the evening McCarthy dispenses her cruelty with the most patronizing smile.
What little action there is concerns Hedda's attachment to Eilert Lovborg (Justin James Leibrecht), the dissipated but brilliant writer and thinker whose well-received new book directly threatens the future career (hence, the future financial security) of Hedda's foolish husband George (Christian Vieria). The exchanges between McCarthy and Leibrecht are among the most compelling, for finally something tangible is at stake; those stakes prove to be higher than either character could initially imagine.
Hedda repeatedly tells us that she is insanely, excruciatingly bored. She also candidly acknowledges that her only talent is for "boring myself to death." So here's the Olympian challenge for those who attempt to bring Hedda Gabler to life: Even when you get your universe right — which is no small task for a period piece like this — how do you make boredom theatrically interesting?
Director Barker and his leading lady don't shortcut Ibsen. McCarthy refuses to resort to histrionics simply to hold our attention; rather, she emanates the stillness of an ice goddess. Much of McCarthy's meticulous performance plays out behind a veritable mask of frosted glass. Before the night ends, we fully expect that mask to shatter and reveal the harridan within. But we don't anticipate the vivid and startling climax that stuns us into a new awareness of Ibsen's celebrated final line: "People don't do such things." Yet despite all the intelligence and effort that is so smoothly and subtly afoot here — and perhaps because of its very fidelity to Ibsen's intent — this is a Hedda Gabler more admirable than involving.
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