Why is it that we still find Hedda Gabler so fascinating? I think it's because of the enigma of Hedda herself. Why does she do the awful things she does? Almost everybody will have a different opinion of her character. My own is that she's a spoiled, narcissistic, malevolent bitch who saunters through life leaving destruction in her wake, kind of like the Erica Kane of a very short Norwegian soap opera. However, there are plenty of other interpretations of her character, more or less equally valid.
But why she acts the way she does, I can't tell you (and not because I'm trying to keep it a secret). If Ibsen were submitting this script to a playwriting class nowadays, I'm pretty sure he'd be criticized for lack of character motivation. But it's precisely this ellipsis that makes Hedda so interesting. Is she just a "bad seed," a born sociopath? Did she have "daddy issues"? Is she pushed to the edge by the stifling of her ambitions by societal constrictions? Is she a feminist before that was allowable? You can read her almost any way you want, and your guess is as good as mine.
When we meet this piece of work, Hedda has just come back to Norway from a long honeymoon. She's married to a guy she can't stand, but she was getting desperate (Ibsen tells us in a stage note that she's 29). She's pregnant, and none too happy about that. In the original, the pregnancy is merely hinted at, but Friel adds dialogue that brings it out into the open and there's no doubt about it.
Her new husband, George Tesman, is an academic who is aspiring to a professorship, a nice guy but boring as paint drying. (If this marriage were to survive, I could picture George and Hedda 30 years down the road morphing into Edward Albee's George and Martha.) Conflict enters the picture when Eilert Loevborg, a brilliant and attractive but troubled old acquaintance of both George and Hedda, shows up after a couple of years on the wagon, having now become the Norwegian author du jour and carrying a new manuscript that will really show his genius. Despite pleasantries all around, something's gotta give. Leave it to Hedda.
If I'm using sitcom verbiage here, it's because the Friel version is really pretty funny. Bad things happen, to be sure, but, though there's a lot of wicked comedy in the original Ibsen, it's more overt in the Friel. This Hedda Gabler is certainly not the ponderous, depressing play from cloudy Scandinavian climes that you might be expecting.
What is this play really about, though? In order to be literature, it should be more than just a domestic potboiler. My guess is that Ibsen was influenced, as almost every writer was back then, by Friedrich Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy, which postulated the distinction between the Apollonian (rational, orderly, sober, formal, conventional) and the Dionysian (wild, mad, drunk, bohemian, creative). Here, it's George versus Eilert. Or, as the costume designer Jaime Pardo has brilliantly realized, it's the cardigan sweater versus the leather jacket. Which one will Hedda choose?
We know which one Hedda is leaning towards, because she wants to see Eilert "with vine leaves in his hair." (Again, Friel helps us out by throwing in the word "Dionysian", which is not in Ibsen; the vines were too subtle, I guess.) But she tries to eradicate the Dionysian from her life, and if you know something about Greek tragedy, that can only set you down the path to your own destruction. The god of madness will not be ignored. This leads to one of the most shocking endings in the theater. See for yourself.
Everything about this production works. The set designed by Timothy Kupjack and Victoria Liberatori makes the Aux Dog look like a much bigger theater than it really is. There is an excellent bit of sound design by Josh Brown. And the directing by Jessica Osbourne is very well thought out, and spot-on.
In relatively minor roles, Moira McCoy and Alaina Warren Zachary are very good. Evening Star Barron is very convincing as Thea, who loves Eilert unrequitedly. Daniel Caimi is rather one-note as Judge Brack, but he's not a very complex character; he's a snake in the grass, pure and simple. Brennan Foster, although not physically the type to play George (he's too tall and good-looking), is nevertheless quite effective in the part, but I think he could have toned down some of the "golly, gee whiz" kind of stuff.
The two standouts are Sheridan Johnson as Hedda and Ron Weisberg as Eilert. Weisberg is all passionate intensity, with laser beam concentration. And you just can't take your eyes off of Sheridan Johnson, even when she's just sitting there listening. When you are compelling even though silent, as Weisberg and Johnson are, that's some kind of magnetism that not every actor is blessed with.
Friel's adaptation uses strangely highfalutin language ("bedizened", "obliquities" and "quickened" in the sense of "brought to life" are some examples) but I guess he can get away with it because it's set in academic circlesor is that the way upper-class Irish speak? The play is not short; it runs about two hours and forty minutes with one intermission. But there was not one second of it when I lost interest. It really should be seen.
Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen, in a new adaptation by Brian Friel, is being presented at the Aux Dog Theatre in Albuquerque through September 1, 2013. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 6:00. Info at 505-254-7716 or www.auxdog.com.