Hedda, Hedda, I hardly know you.
The emotionally ambiguous, deeply layered and mysterious Hedda Gabler whom one could argue is a victim as much as anti-heroine, is more narrowly defined in the new Michael Avolio adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. Leaving a striking impression, Avolio serving also as the Director, transports the action of the masterwork from Oslo, Norway in 1890 to Georgetown, D.C. in 1963. Inviting although tonally different than the classic, Hedda Gabler opens Quotidian Theatre Company’s 17th season and credit goes to QTC Co-Founder Stephanie Mumford for conceiving the move to the Sixties.
In 1963: U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, and feminist Betty Friedan wrote about housewives’ dissatisfaction in her book The Feminine Mystique.
Originally published by Ibsen, the Norwegian dramatist’s works are filled with strong women and insights into the human condition. Hedda Gabler is a timeless, tragic 123-year-old masterpiece that can be interpreted as a reflection on the purposeless life endured by women of that time, and the social conduct and behavior which limited their activities. Stifled by society’s conventions, Hedda Gabler has captivated audiences since she sprang from Ibsen’s imagination.
Her perplexing machinations find a comparable home in the politically-charged Washington, D.C. and therefore perhaps more relevance to a modern audience, especially those who have never seen the play before. The tenuous backdrop of political and civil rights unrest and the dawn of the women’s right movement, embrace the complexities of Avolio’s Hedda Gabler that speaks to how seemingly ordinary choices can lead to extraordinary consequences.
This version of Hedda Gabler takes a clear point of view with fewer shades of gray, and the soul of Hedda Gabler illuminates the protest against the double standards that exist in society. The stylized, straightforward interpretation and spelled-out text allow little for nuance or the internalized subtext of the main character to evolve. One of Ibsen’s major contributions to theater is a multi-layered dialogue where the characters speak obliquely about a subject rather than directly. I would have appreciated more subtlety with the updated version to heighten the complex, emotional coloring underscoring Ibsen’s finessed technique.
The play is a criticism of life, and underscored by the psychological study of a certain type of woman – Hedda Gabler Tesman.
Hedda Gabler (Katie Culligan) revolves around a willful woman who has recently married for security instead of love. The newlywed, is the daughter of a WWII General, and as personified by the title of the play is more her father’s daughter than her husband’s wife. Hedda is “boring herself to death” lost in a loveless commitment, trapped in a compromised world, and has anxiety about the way in which society as a whole perceives her. The struggle between the inward needs of all of the characters in the play, and the demands of their social environments, are expressed in this layered, moody drama.
At its core, the enigma of Hedda Gabler is still the tale of one woman who wants more. Over the course of two days we witness Hedda’s growing jealousies, flirtations, and her vocal dissatisfactions. Through a series of personal campaigns for control and dominance, Hedda plots, lies, and cheats her way through developing circumstances to escape feeling trapped, no matter the cost.
With zeal, Katie Culligan interprets her Hedda Gabler character with a “nothing is good enough” attitude and as one constantly questioning her ability to be happy. The vamped approach may be a little over-stylized for some tastes, but Culligan certainly captures the duplicitous and venomous ugliness that the self-serving Hedda Gabler spews. She’s mean and manipulative. She taunts a recovering alcoholic; she takes advantage of her husband’s dying aunt; and she tries to trick a man into committing suicide.
Missing for me was an emotional connection with a woman I could relate to even if I didn’t agree with her actions. This updated version of Hedda’s self-loathing, deeply flawed character and despicable actions appear too one-dimensional – and too easy to dismiss.
Restricted by the social standards she despises, Hedda retreats into fantasy by living through others and manipulating those around. This is best demonstrated by her paralyzing fear of scandal. In a conversation with family friend Judge Brack (Francisco Reinoso), Hedda reveals that she has never had any real excitement in her life, and the worst is, “I’ve only stopped at another station. This train isn’t leaving on the railroad to boredom.”
Sarah Ferris is the epitome of femininity as the nurturing Thea Elvsted, providing a convincing emotional arc for her character as Hedda’s rival. Ferris is penetrating, creating as much drama in the pauses and the moments that she doesn’t speak as those where her character’s loneliness and anxiousness punctuate a scene. There are shimmering moments from Christian Sullivan (Elliott Lovborg) as Hedda’s old love interest and new intellectual rival to her husband. Francisco Reinoso is substantive and consistently good as the smarmy and lecherous Judge Brack.
Brian McDermott (George Tesman) as Hedda’s husband is a revelation, McDermott creates a believable character with a likeable personality and character flaws. George is an academic and somewhat of a clumsy, nitwit despite having a Ph.D. But he means well and he loves his family.
He finds his voice reacting to the discovery of Hedda’s handling of Lovborg’s manuscript.
Supporting the theme of family harmony and loyalty is Laura Russell as Aunt Julia, who, “needs someone to take care of or it doesn’t feel right,” and Kecia Campbell as the reliable housekeeper, Berta rounding out the capable cast.
Michael Avolio made a dashing directorial debut with last season’s critically acclaimed Quotidian production of The Iceman Cometh. In addition to adapting and directing Hedda Gabler, Avolio designed the set with Jack Sbarbori and worked with Ed Moser on the sound design (which included a diverse curation of Rock and Motown sound.)
The action we see in this 1963 Hedda Gabler takes place in the living room of the Tesman’s Georgetown apartment. Absent are the elegant or distinct touches befitting a home in an expensive neighborhood. This apartment, with its neutral-color and comfortably worn love seat, chair, and furnishings, looked like it could have been an apartment in any neighborhood and from any decade from the Sixties to the present. The set design is ultimately disappointing and not effective because it is a missed opportunity that failed to add value to the production or enhance the story adaptation in any way.
Stephanie Mumford on her era specific costume design and Don Slater’s effective play with the lighting design deserve kudos.
One of Ibsen’s major contributions to theater is a multilayered dialogue where the characters speak obliquely about a subject rather than directly. I would have appreciated more subtlety of the updated version to heighten the emotional subtext, underscoring Ibsen’s finesse.
Quotidian Theatre Company’s production and Avolio’s new adaptation of the timeless Hedda Gabler offer a new angle of engagement with Ibsen’s enduring masterpiece of human nature in all its frustrating complexity. Hedda Gabler’s sinister manipulations ultimately trap her beyond her ability to escape, and her ideal of freedom, courage and beauty turns into a loathsome reality.
Ibsen’s critical examination of how women are treated in modern society, and Michael Avolio’s updated adaptation is relevant today. While women presently have greater freedom than in 1963 or 1890, the battle for equal rights has not yet been won.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one fifteen-minute intermission.
Hedda Gabler plays through November 23, 2014 at Quotidian Theatre Company performing at The Writer’s Center – 4508 Walsh Street, in Bethesda, MD. The venue is a short walk from the Bethesda Metro Station. There is free parking on Saturdays and Sundays. For tickets, call (800) 838-3006 Ext.1, or purchase them online.
Hedda Gabler’Meets Betty Friedan in Quotidian’s Season Opener by Stephanie Mumford.