Late in the second "act" of Hedda Gabler, after Hedda's greatest act of desperation, she turns around and slowly walks upstage with a strong light behind her. She casts an imposing shadow over the set and the minds of those in the audience. The effect is at once powerful and unsettling. The control Hedda exhibits, and the lengths to which she is willing to go, represent the potential for cruelty, and the longing for freedom inside us all. It is a shame that this new production of Henrik Ibsen's play (translated by William Archer and Edmund Gosse), now playing at the American Globe Theatre, never comes closer to articulating the meaning of the play than this.
Hedda Gabler deals with the struggles of Hedda (Elizabeth Keefe) to adjust to married life. No sooner do she and her new husband (David Munnell), George Tesman, return from their honeymoon than do their lives start to fall apart. A would-be competitor to Tesman, Eilert Lovberg (Charles Tucker) threatens Tesman's work and his social standing, both of which could cause serious problems for Hedda. Determined to create for herself the kind of life she wants, Hedda attempts to make things right, and in the process causes new problems of her own.
John Basil's direction is frequently sharp, but only shines in the one moment mentioned above. Unfortunately, he doesn't succeed frequently enough at working around the limitations of the playing space. Too often, the clomping of feet or the theatre's acoustics will swallow words, creating significant problems in some of the scenes where three or four characters are all onstage, demanding to be heard.
Keefe generally does fine by the complex Hedda. Though her coldness and indifference seem too affected in the earlier scenes and influence the tone of some of the exchanges she has with the other characters, Keefe manages to come into her own in the second act. When Hedda's scheming is brought more closely to the forefront and her world begins to crumble around her, Keefe shines, and Hedda's descent is fascinating to watch.
As her husband, Munnell also improves in the second act. Perhaps intended to offset Hedda's coldness in the play's earliest scenes, Munnell's joviality is frequently distracting and often seems out of sync with the rest of the play. Richard Fay, as Judge Brack, gives a cleverly understated performance throughout, as deftly handling the his oily double entendres as the almost humorous payoff near the end of the show. Charles Tucker's Eilert Lovborg and Melissa Hill's Thea Elvsted are well-drawn and moving in places.
How far are any of us willing to go for freedom? What are we willing to sacrifice, and what do we have the right to ask others to give up? It is impossible to avoid these questions while dealing with a play like Hedda Gabler. Though this production does not give us any new answers, it is likewise unable to dilute the power and importance of one of Ibsen's greatest works.