A Most Alluring Monster
Lord Leebrick presents a mesmeric Hedda Gabler
by Anna Grace
“It pains me, my lady,” the implacable Judge Brack (Dan Pegoda) nearly whispers as he looms too close to his prey, “but I am compelled to disabuse you of your beautiful illusion.” Hedda (Mary Buss) is trapped; behind her a gorgeous room that has largely lain empty, save a collection of pistols. The audience leans forward, scarcely breathing as the grim, glamorous tragedy of Hedda Gabler unfolds.
Ibsen’s play opened in 1891 to a cacophony of criticism. Called unnatural, immoral and “a hideous nightmare of pessimism,” it was too shocking and far too real for its Victorian-era audience. Hedda is a selfish, thoughtless, socialite who depends on the conventions of her world as much as she hates them. She is a mean-spirited pawn with the gumption to try to take over the chess game.
Director Craig Willis, with the help of his cast and dramaturg Arianna Chadwick-Saund, almost seamlessly updated Hedda Gabler to the 1950s. The post-war era of re-domestication for women in America is undeniably fitting, and any liberties with the language don’t mar Ibsen’s masterful turn of phrase. The update is refreshing.
Buss is magnificent in a title role as complicated as Hamlet and as unlikeable as Coriolanus. Is she a victim of 19th-century middle class morality, a feminist 100 years too early? Or is she a manipulative, emotional mutant who destroys the lives and hopes of those around her? Buss skillfully walks the line. All histrionics are strapped down so tightly that her smallest reactions, a brief furrow of her brow or brush of her hair, has the audience anticipating her every mood, just as the characters around her are forced to do. Physically, Buss stands taller than every man on stage, her tailored costumes and heels further emphasizing the effect.
Dan Pegoda smoothly plays the predatory, arachnoid Judge Brack. In the hands of a lesser actor the judge can be smarmy, but Pegoda fuels his machinations with the perfect mixture of urbanity and inhumanity. Cameron Carlisle’s boyish Lovborg delivers chemistry and charisma. Danielle deLuise is understated as the more saccharinly manipulative, and manipulated, Thea Elvsted. Wade Hicks blunders amiably as George Tesman. My only real concern about this very good play is that the male characters, with the exception of Judge Brack, could have worked harder at boxing Hedda in. Having stronger, more worthy opponents would have made her desperation all the more poignant.
Ibsen writes the way a good photographer takes a picture, focusing our attention onto minutia we’d be too self-consumed to notice otherwise. Hedda Gabler can only work with extreme care paid to detail and nuance, because any attempt to jazz up the story or clip through the cues will simply result in melodramatic nonsense. This cast moves carefully through the script, making the hours fly as they speak mesmerizing lines. Occasionally an ill-planned blast of music shakes the audience out of the Tesman home, as though the director were poking his head on stage to remind everyone that something important was happening. And some modernizations, such as Lovborg doing something that looked a lot like gum chewing, do not seem entirely necessary. But overall the team producing this extraordinary play is to be commended.
In the 1890s bourgeois women were suffocated by convention. In the 1950s they were trapped by the pretense to domestic fulfillment. Today many middle class woman struggle to breathe under the mountainous expectations of work and family. Hedda’s flaw may be a desire to feel and to live a life she chooses, or she may just be a raving bitch. She’s undeniably among the most important characters ever written, and the debate around Hedda will never settle. “I will not have people talking about me,” the character resolutely declares — a futile declaration: This powerful production will have everyone talking about Hedda Gabler.
Hedda Gabler continues through Nov. 20 at the Leebrick. www.lordleebrick.com or 541-465-1506 for tix (and get ‘em fast!).