“Hedda Gabler”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
When: through April 6
Tickets: $35-$70
Phone: 847-242-6000

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

If you’re used to seeing “Hedda Gabler” with a Victorian aesthetic, reliance on subtext, and plenty of suppressed emotion, the production at Writers Theatre will come as something of a shocker. Sharply directed by Kimberly Senior, using Nicholas Rudall’s smart translation, it brings all the sturm und drang of Henrik Ibsen’s seminal drama right to the surface.

From the moment she appears, Kate Fry’s remarkable Hedda sets the tone. Obviously ill at ease and displeased with the bourgeois surroundings of her academic husband, Jorgen Tesman (Sean Fortunato), General Gabler’s daughter practically vibrates with irritation at every little thing. She seems ready to come unhinged at any moment, yet at the same time is highly calculating in the play-acting personas she assumes to manipulate those around her. One minute she’s deliberately insulting Tesman’s Aunt Julie (Barbara Figgins), sarcastically pretending the hat the well-meaning woman left on a chair belongs to a servant; the next she’s mimicking the loving wife dedicated to her husband’s professional advancement.

This pattern escalates throughout the evening, as Hedda’s restlessness, frustration and boredom mount and her machinations to control others, especially her old flame and Tesman’s rival, Eilert Lovborg (Mark L. Montgomery), go awry. Increasingly desperate, she tries to get at him through his muse and her old school acquaintance, Thea Elvsted (Chaon Cross), who’s responsible for the womanizing alcoholic reprobate’s reformation and has marital problems Hedda cajoles her into confessing. Her ever crazier behavior builds to a destructive frenzy, but she also backs herself into a corner, putting herself at the mercy of Judge Brack (Scott Parkinson), a helplessness she can’t abide. Fry’s Hedda comes across as intelligent and self-aware but unable to stop until the General’s pistols represent the only way out.

Under Senior’s direction, the men in Hedda’s life all fall short of her expectations and want something from her. Looking and sounding more like a graduate student or teaching assistant than a professor, Fortunato’s Tesman is truly clueless. When he unexpectedly finds himself in competition with Lovborg for a position, he craves the academic validation and economic security it represents but befriends the rival he respects. He counts himself lucky to have won Hedda and wants her to be happy as part of his life — but has no idea what makes her tick. Montgomery’s rather haggard Lovborg belies Hedda’s fantasy of a poet with vine leaves in his hair meeting a heroic end, but that’s part of the point: Intense and fragile, he seeks the acceptance she denies him, instead attempting to reshape him to suit her imagination. As for Parkinson’s Brack, he’s right on the mark as a smug, self-satisfied, slippery, insinuating creep who positions himself as a family friend to get the upper hand.

The women are more conventional, and Cross is letter-perfect as the lovely Thea who has the unselfish, caring instincts Hedda lacks and also is capable of a bold action in the face of scandal. It’s no wonder Hedda envies her. Figgins’ overbearingly kindly Aunt Julie and Kathleen Ruhl’s totally unsophisticated maid, Berte, represent two aspects of country living that set Hedda’s teeth on edge.

Aided by the intimate setting, Senior’s staging also is more in-your-face than usual. Jack Magaw’s somewhat rustic set, which uses every inch of playing space, has an unsettled feel in the first act. Not only are vases of welcoming flowers all over the place, so are partially unpacked wooden boxes of furnishings. Still crated up, leaning against the wall in a small inner room, is the crucial portrait of General Gabler. Hedda rips off some of the wood slats revealing his head and torso; he’s not the elderly gentleman hanging on the wall in Ibsen’s stage directions but rather a dashing young hero of romantic proportions.

The climax represents another significant departure from the playwright’s directions, which have Hedda retreating to that room and closing the curtains, before playing wildly on the piano she had moved to that inner sanctum by the second act. Here her final gesture is so sudden and startling, yet somehow small, that we’re left thinking, like Judge Brack says, “Good God!—people don’t do such things.”