The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler
Also see Sharon's review of Deceit
A title like The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler might be a tough sell. First thing you've gotta know is: you don't have to be up on your Ibsen to appreciate the play. Actually, you don't even have to have seen Hedda Gabler. Playwright Jeff Whitty sums up everything you need to know in a one sentence description at the end of an author's note in the program. So, don't be worried that you'll be left behind if you're not particularly Hedda-literate.
The next thing you've got to know is: this play isn't a laugh riot. You might think that, when you're dealing with a play that takes place in a universe in which Hedda Gabler and Medea are neighbors (just "please, don't bring up the children") - and that play is written by the guy who wrote the book for Avenue Q - you're going to be in for some sharply written comedy in which well-known fictional characters interact in unexpected and hilarious ways. And, yes, there is some of that in the play. But Whitty has his sights set on something a little more substantial than that.
In Whitty's odd little world, fictional characters are created from a foreboding place called the "Furnace." If they are badly written, they die immediately. If they are good enough to survive, they will live, as written, wholly unchanging, until such time as they are forgotten. A character will live, we are told, as long as someone remembers it. (This particular plot device made me want to clap my hands and shout, "I do believe in you!" more than once.) And The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler begins when Hedda decides she no longer wants to live her depressing, confining life. She yells at the world, "Quit paying attention to me!" and, when that fails, she decides to journey to the Furnace and make Ibsen rewrite her as happy.
Hedda is accompanied on her quest by Mammy - yes, that Mammy. (Although her author is never mentioned by name, if you start having Gone With the Wind flashbacks, you won't be wrong.) And while Hedda goes to the Furnace because she doesn't want to be trapped in unhappiness anymore, Mammy goes to the Furnace because she doesn't want to be a slave. Hedda's quest is interesting from a psychological point of view (and is sometimes quite comical), but there's nothing funny about a woman who remains trapped in a racial stereotype of a bygone age - and Mammy's journey is instantly much more compelling. Kimberly Scott gives a wonderful performance here. When Mammy first meets an empowered black female character and realizes the limitations of her own character, her reaction is a simple attempt at dignity in the face of self-doubt.
On their way to the Furnace, Hedda and Mammy meet all sorts of other characters - some funny, some thought-provoking, some both. Indeed, Mammy is ultimately accompanied by Patrick and Steven, two homosexuals written in 1968 when gay men called each other "her" and spoke with a pronounced sibilant-s (Dan Butler is completely unrecognizable as Patrick). The three of them have a scene at the top of the second act which is this play's brush with perfection. This trio, much more than Hedda, is what this play is really about - coming to terms with outdated characters whose writing we now find distasteful, and yet are still remembered.
The play hasn't completely reached its potential yet. Perhaps Whitty needs to let go of his preoccupation with Hedda, as this is really Mammy's play. And although Mammy's first foray into song seems to come organically from her character, her second is out of place in what is, otherwise, a non-musical play. But, even as it is, there is a lot to enjoy, and contemplate, in The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler.
The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler runs through January 29 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. For information and tickets, see www.scr.org.
South Coast Repertory - David Emmes, Producing Artistic Director; Martin Benson, Artistic Director - presents The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler by Jeff Whitty. Christopher Acebo, Scenic Design; Shigeru Yaji, Costume Design; Geoff Korf, Lighting Design; Paul James Prendergast, Composer/Sound Design; Art Manke, Chirography; Brian J. Sivesind, Assistant Director; Megan Monaghan, Dramaturg; Jeff Gifford, Production Manager; Randall K. Lum, Stage Manager; Directed by Bill Rauch; Pam and Jim Muzzy, Honorary Producers.
Hedda Gabler - Susannah Schulman