Loves of a She-devil

One of the great issues of modern drama can best be phrased as a simple, catty question: "Why is Hedda such a bitch?"

Certainly, the pioneering dramatist Henrik Ibsen was spry enough with language, structure and the subtle insertions of social conscience in Hedda Gabler to give theatergoers a thousand answers ranging from "the strangling grip of bourgeois society" to "because she wants to be." The reality is that they're all correct; as created by the playwright, the woman is intelligent and bold enough to buck her surroundings à la many of the great female writers and activists of the late 19th century, should she choose to use her powers for good. We perceive her to be even sharper than Nora, Ibsen's other famous woman from A Doll's House who does manage to escape. What she lacks, one could argue, is fortitude, the ability to endure based on previous experiences with hardship and challenge. The daughter of a general raised in a privileged household, Hedda received the education and cultural exposure to recognize the petty surfaces of the social climbers around her but was never permitted to test her wings beyond the golden bars of her well-appointed parlor. She loves luxury but loathes and mistrusts the company that often attends it. "I'm terrified of scandal," she says plainly at one point in the play. We know and she knows that should she leap out and find herself unable to remain airborne, the fall will be witnessed gleefully by everyone around her. And it's those staring eyes, as much as the tumble itself, that would kill her.

I'm pleased to report that the current Dallas Theater Center production--Christopher Hampton's translation under the direction of visiting artist Ron Daniels--emphasizes the demonic humor at least as much as the tragedy in Hedda's machinations. I've harbored a lifelong bias toward villainesses of wit and cunning and come to see their presence in art as a warped kind of feminist triumph. Starting all the way back with Medea, I always have to snicker under my hand when one member of the gender with the power to create life decides to destroy it instead. (I'm talking female killers as vicarious artistic thrill here--they're not funny at all when they make newspaper headlines.) Ibsen has strewn legitimate moments of commentary on women's roles lightly throughout Hedda Gabler--in perhaps the simplest explanation of why she deliberately drives an ex-admirer to alcohol, ostracism and suicide, she says she wants to control another's destiny because she's never known what it's like to control any destiny. But director Daniels and his lead performer, the vampirishly poised Jenna Stern, aren't trying to pawn off this literary schemer as an unfortunate victim whose energies have been perverted by patriarchal constraints. The other declared reason she destroys a man's life--and, to my mind, the far more intriguing one--is that she's bored.

Scenic designer Robert Pyzocha and light man Scott Zielinski conspire in this rationale with the oppressive, unadorned, eggshell-colored walls of Hedda's home and the effectively harsh office-lighting they receive. There's nothing here to occupy the titular character's wandering attention. Fearing the encroachment of spinsterhood, she has reluctantly agreed to marry the amiable but deadly dull George (Chris Henry Coffey), an academic whom she believes will rise to prominence in his field. A welcome interruption comes in the form of Mrs. Elvsted (Julienne Greer, who manages to be simultaneously mousy and radiant), a timid former classmate of Hedda's who begs George to investigate the well-being of Eilert (a bombastic but effective Matt Osian). He's a hard-drinking, carousing scholar who historians tell us was based on August Strindberg, one of Ibsen's archenemies. The married Mrs. Elvsted loves the dashing if unstable Eilert, who in turn fancied Hedda many years ago. He's re-emerged as a recovering alcoholic who's just written a manuscript that will likely make him famous. Hedda, an unhappy woman who likes to spread that feeling around, sets about to implicate her husband and Mrs. Elvsted in Eilert's downfall.

Naturally, no production of Hedda Gabler can be carried by the supporting cast--the lady herself must be monstrous in a way that fascinates us throughout the ample time she dominates the stage, in the same way she overcomes and controls the individuals in her life. It's worth noting that when the play premiered in a series of European countries during 1890, Ibsen's most vociferous naysayers were the exclusively male critics of the time who either thought the playwright was defiling the fair sex or simply playing a joke on audiences with his anti-heroine's blurry motives. Meanwhile, an American actress living in England named Elizabeth Robins was responsible for the first well-received production--and the first successful English translation--when she pawned a family heirloom to rent a theater and star as Hedda. She was said by a leading critic who hated Ibsen to have given "a sublime portrait of heartlessness."

At Dallas Theater Center, Jenna Stern is another in a long line of sometimes-legendary performers who recognize in Hedda a unique dramatic challenge--a character who must do evil deeds for almost three hours without the actor allowing herself to slide into stridency and monotony. I admit that I couldn't look away from Stern. The suspended menace in her performance was real--her rigid posture and riveting but empty eyes reminded me of the warning that when a dog's neck goes stiff, the animal is about to bite. It's also an unsubtle performance that I enjoyed even while I didn't particularly believe Stern--from the affected lilt of her voice to her florid pauses before slinging a one-liner, there's nothing naturalistic about this incarnation of Hedda. The result is that the characters around her--with the exception of Christopher McCann as Judge Brack, a family friend of similar wicked mentality--come across as a spectacular pack of dupes. I'm not suggesting that anyone would predict the lengths to which Hedda would go to control a person's destiny, but Stern telegraphs her contempt for the others so assiduously that it unbalances the play's loose, conversational form. She plays to us rather than with her fellow actors, and as a result, they're given the task of ignoring the clues that stampede us sitting in the darkness.

Given Stern's crack timing and bracing, ice-brittle poses, it's not a fatal flaw. She just amplifies the black comic flourishes that Ibsen attached to Hedda Gabler. With all the talk of how the playwright fathered modern drama and made unprecedented explorations into the psychology and sexuality of women, the fact that he could be damned witty and even devilish often goes by the wayside. Dallas Theater Center's splendidly cruel production reminds us of that, if a bit broadly. No matter--it's much more entertaining to watch Hedda twirl her (invisible) mustache than wring her hands.

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Jimmy Fowler