Also see Sarah's review of The Chronicles of Kalki
The Gamm is a cozy, intimate space that offers little separation between the audience and the actors. Increasing the transparency of the production, Michael McGarty's open set design is a framework of white studs, suggesting various rooms with the assistance of specific props, such as a full-length portrait of Hedda's father General Gabler in the drawing room and a piano in an alcove. Rather than furniture, numerous trunks and suitcases are stacked on both levels of the two-tier stage which are accessed by small, open steps. Chandeliers and wall sconces provide low lighting, with spotlights placed strategically (a few are in the wings) by designer Megan Estes to provide greater illumination. In contrast to the spareness of the set, David T. Howard's costume designs are beautifully detailed and evocative of the period, with the women's long dresses featuring mostly high necklines and bustles, and the men's attire including vests and dark frock coats.
The play opens as Hedda and husband George Tesman (Joe Short) have just returned from an extended wedding trip that bored her and excited him. Welcomed to their new villa by George's loving Aunt Juliana (Marya Lowry) and the family maid Berta (Katie Travers), Hedda quickly reveals her lack of warmth and disdain by insulting the aunt's hat and consistently forgetting Berta's name. They are soon visited by Thea Elvsted (Karen Carpenter), a younger schoolmate of Hedda and former acquaintance of George, who brings news of Eilert Lövborg, and family friend Judge Brack (Jim O'Brien), who has handled Tesman's financial affairs in his absence. Before he even makes an appearance, the mere mention of Lövborg (Alexander Platt) foreshadows conflict from a past relationship with Hedda and as potential academic rival for George.
Hedda Gabler is rife with conflicts, not the least of which is Hedda's internal strife. She is a product of her strict upbringing and a victim of the limited options for women in her time. Married to a man she doesn't love to satisfy social mores, she must find ways to amuse herself, choosing to manipulate the lives of others for her own pleasure. She resents Juliana's involvement in the household and butts heads with George about it; she swears discretion to get Thea to share personal information, only to divulge her confidences later; she goads Lövborg into breaking his temperance vow and worse. Each incident seems to lead to another, and another, her bad behavior fueling itself, until it becomes apparent that Hedda cannot stop herself, even when she knows she's in the wrong.
The combination of the skeletal set with Bassham's ability to reveal the many facets of Hedda's complex personality gives us a virtually unrestricted window into her soullessness. There are moments that we have an awareness of what she's doing before she does, when Bassham's face registers Hedda's surprise brought on by her own words or deeds. It is fascinating to watch the other characters react to her, realizing that some of them "get" her, while others are clueless. Tesman falls into the latter category; wrapped up in his work and financial worries, he "plays at" being married and thinks Hedda loves him. Short tackles the role energetically, but goes a little too far in the direction of playing him as a fool, garnering more laughs than seem necessary.
Remembering her fear of Hedda when they were schoolgirls, Thea is wary when she first visits the villa to seek a favor. However, owing to her own goodness, she decides to trust Hedda and confide in her. Carpenter's portrayal is spot on as she lets down her guard, gets burned, and recoils in disbelief and horror. As badly as she is treated by Hedda, she has a relatively happy ending compared to Lövborg, and Platt's performance is compelling as he gets caught in Hedda's web. Because he shares some of her traits, Judge Brack sees through her exterior and is the only one who can beat her at her own game. O'Brien is smooth and lively, conveying the good-natured friend with a not-so-hidden agenda. Poor Berta is terrorized by Hedda and Travers does a great job of scurrying around at her beck and call. Lowry is lovely as the long-suffering aunt.
Estrella's taut direction of this stellar cast results in a riveting production with very few missteps. In his adapted script, there is an overuse of the word "incredible," usually in the form of an exclamation by Tesman, and one glaringly anachronistic utterance of "no worries," a present-day favorite response from jovial wait staff. However, for the greater part, Estrella has lovingly recreated Ibsen's masterpiece with the complexity and angst of its characters intact and the reach of its dramatic power unmitigated.
Hedda Gabler, performances through November 30, 2014, at The Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange Street, Pawtucket, RI; Box Office 401-723-4266 or www.gammtheatre.org
By Henrik Ibsen, Adapted and Directed by Tony Estrella; Costume Design, David T. Howard; Set Design, Michael McGarty; Lighting Design, Megan Estes; Stage Management, Meg Tracy Leddy
Cast: Marianna Bassham, Joe Short, Marya Lowry, Jim O'Brien, Alexander Platt, Karen Carpenter, Katie Travers