Hedda Gabler

The universality of a play is manifest not only in its ability to withstand the test of time, but in its transparent adaptation to the changes that time brings. Updating classics is not without its dangers, but those that succeed generally surpass the original because they not only recreate the catharsis, they do so in the new audience's own language, thus adding another octave of meaning.

Such is the case with Paragon Theatre Company's current production of Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. Working from Doug Hughes 2000 translation, with minimal text changes for time and place, director Warren Sherrill and his ensemble have crafted a transcendental take on the tragic heroine caught between two worlds.

Set in the mid-50's, before the cracks in the placid surface of post-war prosperity were apparent to most observers, the production thrives on the tension that precedes the fracturing to come in the '60's. This taughtness is centered around Hedda, whose rigid public demeanor has been forged in her father's house, that of an army general. And as Ibsen indicates in the use of her maiden name in the title, despite her recent marriage to George Tesman, Hedda is still her father's daughter.

Barbra Andrews as Hedda Gabler Tesman and Josh Hartwell as George Tesman
Barbra Andrews as Hedda Gabler Tesman
and Josh Hartwell as George Tesman
In elegant period dresses, splayed with full petticoats, and chic, luxuriant suits, designed by Brynn Starr Coplan, Barbra Andrews, as Hedda, fits in Christopher Wink's Danish modern set like the gloves that match her outfits. Indeed, it seems that this is how her possessive husband sees her—"Hedda is the most beautiful thing of all."—as an accoutrement in the manner of his books and furniture.

But it is apparent from the get go that Andrews has tapped into the immemorial resentments of all women who have been treated as chattel. Bristling at the slightest provocation and possessing a second nature for scheming that would put even our current administration to shame, Andrews' Hedda seems to effortlessly manipulate everyone with whom she interfaces.

Barbra Andrews as Hedda Gabler Tesman
Barbra Andrews as Hedda Gabler Tesman
Though George believes he has provided the direction for everything from their marriage to their house to his career, rather it is Hedda's suggestions, whether dropped in jest or in earnest, that have set the tone. George's delusions go down easy in Josh Hartwell's multi-dimensional characterization in which we see a confident, self-absorbed, detail-oriented academic who, severely challenged in social interactions, must rely on the opinions and support of others, including Hedda, his aunt Julie, and Judge Brack, to make his way in the world.

While we may look back on the '50's as a repressed time, it was certainly light years beyond Ibsen's late 19th-century Scandinavia, and Sherrill takes full advantage of this shift by having Andrews use her obvious sexual charms in Hedda's interactions with Brack and Eilert Lovborg, both old suitors, and underscoring her deviousness with fleeting spectral appearances at the periphery of the action.

Jeremy Make as Eilert Lovborg and Barbra Andrews as Hedda Gabler Tesman
Jeremy Make as Eilert Lovborg and
Barbra Andrews as Hedda Gabler Tesman
For Lovborg, Hedda's overtures and backhanded challenges send him spinning off the wagon and into a maelstrom of self-loathing and destructiveness that coincidentally reveal the core values that propel Hedda's own self-centered behavior. From Lovborg's first handsome impression in his well-tailored suit—as a debonair, highly-competent, and contrite economist—Jeremy Make takes us on a wild ride, incrementally deconstructing Lovborg's rebuilt persona until it flies apart at the seams.

Barbra Andrews as Hedda Gabler Tesman and Jarrad Holbrook as Judge Brack
Barbra Andrews as Hedda Gabler Tesman
and Jarrad Holbrook as Judge Brack
n the end, however, Hedda does not have her way with everyone. From his first coy repartee with her, Jarrad Holbrook's Judge Brack is a man adept at insinuation and innuendo, matching Hedda move for move until the final checkmate. Who wins or loses, however, is open to interpretation. Though Brock is just as desirous of Hedda as Lovberg, Holbrook makes it clear that Brack's desires are clearly sublimated to his instinct for protecting a judicious reputation.

So, it is not Hedda who builds on Ibsen's argument for women's liberation that began with Nora in A Doll's House, but rather Thea Elvsted, who served as the target for Hedda's childhood venom. Like Nora, Thea's deference lulls others into overlooking her keen sense of right and wrong and the decisiveness with which she responds to her observations.

Kate Avallone as Mrs. Thea Elvsted and Barbra Andrews as Hedda Gabler Tesman
Kate Avallone as
Mrs. Thea Elvsted and
Barbra Andrews as
Hedda Gabler Tesman
Thea may not possess Hedda's flash, but her quiet elegance is nevertheless disarming and equally hard to read. Kate Avallone forces us to look below the surface at Thea's genuine nature, then surprises us with an inner strength that rivals her less thoughtful counterparts. In the end, it is Thea that gives meaning to the future.

Rounding out this polished ensemble are Patty Mintz Figel, whose unassuming but nevertheless prying and fussy Aunt Julie, and Karen Kargel, whose brusque yet conscientious domestic, Berta, apply timely pressure. Wendy Franz' choice of music, highlighted by Nat King Cole and Peggy Lee, is both poignant and, at times, darkly comedic. Jen Orf's lighting calls attention to the details while complementing the action.

Despite Hedda's unrepentant self-possession, we are drawn to her for sticking to her guns (double-entendre intended) and thus fulfilling the prescription as a tragic heroine. If there is a moral in her fall, it is that we must take responsibility for our own conditioning and see to our own healing. We begin this when we ask, 'Who victimized the perpetrator?' At that precise moment, we become capable of ending the violence which has been passed down, generation to generation, from our pre-history in the jungle to our present day circumstances. Only then do we become capable of fulfilling the potential of conscious human beings. No longer ruled by our ego and instincts, we can evolve into spiritual beings.

Paragon Theatre Company's production of Hedda Gabler runs through November 4th. 303-300-2210.

Bob Bows


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