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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Hedda Gabler
Pear Theatre
Review by Eddie Reynolds | Season Schedule (updated)

Also see Eddie's review of The Mystery of Edwin Drood


Troy Johnson and Elizabeth Kruse Craig
Photo: Michael Craig/Pear Theatre
"There is only one thing in the world I have any turn for ... boring myself to death."

So declares with both absolute surety and a strong premonition one of the most famous female roles in all theatre, that of Hedda Gable—a role that actors like Ingrid Bergman, Glenn Close, Mary Louise Parker, and hundreds others famous and not-famous have undertaken. Maybe there is no other protagonist in Henrik Ibsen's array of women that is easier to dislike for all her nastiness, her bullying, and her self-centeredness; but there is also no other that continues to fascinate actors and audiences alike.

Continuing its tradition of periodically staging important classics on its small stage, Pear Theatre presents Ibsen's 1891 Hedda Gabler in a modern-set adaptation by former Artistic Director and Founder, Diane Tasca. Starring current Artistic Director Elizabeth Kruse Craig as an insufferable, overbearing Hedda who habitually snarls with a smile cemented on her face, the Pear production has a current-day feel and look via the costumes of Melissa Sanchez and the set designed by Ting Na Wang.

From the moment we meet Hedda, her clearly audible sighs, huffs and puffs along with a voice that often has a sharp edge showing, even as that false smile persists, tell us that this is a woman in a state of constant dissatisfaction. Although she is only thirty, has been away for almost six months on a honeymoon throughout Europe, and is returning to a home she once told her now-husband she dreamed to have, Ms. Craig's Hedda is a portrait of a woman out of sorts in almost every regard, who has no patience for anyone around her she deems a possible target for her implied cynicism or her outright criticism.

This Hedda is often like a courtroom prosecutor as she paces the floor while grilling her current victim with question after question, leading the witness-of-sorts to a conclusion she has already formulated in her head—all the time smirking when the person answers exactly as she had internally predicted. While Ibsen's title character has been often described as a woman imprisoned by the strict limitations the patriarchal society around her has placed upon her, this Hedda seems to thrive dramatically playing the part of victim, while at the same time usually in total control of the others around her.

Those others include her soft-spoken, affable husband, George—a recent doctorate recipient who is working with much enthusiasm on an obscure topic of history that bores Hedda to no end. Troy Johnson admirably plays the aspiring professor who is most comfortable in his knitted sweater and crocheted, blue booties while his bride dresses in their parlor as if ready for a magazine photo shoot. He clearly adores a wife who baits him from time to time with some fawned affection but who will quickly admit to others her complete boredom for a husband she does not love. At the same time, she is always quick to say she could neither leave him nor be unfaithful to him—clues to the importance she in fact does pay to societal mandates and the opinions of others.

While George is clearly excited about his new bride and willing to do anything for her (including taking unwise loans for the new house and its rich furnishings before receiving a hoped-for university appointment), George also particularly adores his Aunt Juliana. Celia Maurice is the sweet, elderly Aunt who goes out of her way to compliment the beauty of Hedda even after Hedda has ridiculed in the cruelest of tones a new hat Juliana bought just to wear in meeting her new niece—a small feathered hat with ties around the neck cleverly designed by Ting Na Wang in such a manner that we almost have to agree with Hedda, even if we disagree with her callousness.

Into the world of Hedda and George come three others connected in a web of past and present entanglements, known and unknown to both. Thea Elvsted (Damaris Divito), a schoolmate Hedda once terrorized when they were young (i.e., threatening to set her curly hair on fire) and also a former interest of George, arrives having left her husband in order to follow a man who has served as tutor to her step-children and has become her lover. That man, Eilert Lovborg (Michael Champlin), is a former friend of George's and now a rival in their joint academic circles; he was also once madly in love with Hedda, who threatened to kill him with one of her two much-loved pistols. Coming often in and out of the house and proposing to Hedda his clearly erotic desire to be part of a triangular relationship in her household is a close friend and counselor to George, the unscrupulous Judge Brack (Ron Talbot).

Beyond Ms. Craig's often-arresting portrayal of Hedda and Mr. Johnson's solid take on George, it is Michael Champlin who leaves a mark truly worth noting in this cast. Eilert's first time alone with Hedda sees the actor within inches of her as they talk in near lusty terms of their shared past. One can almost feel his hot breath that bears down on her turned face. Later, this recovering alcoholic goes on a one-night binge with George and the Judge, leading to his total mortification, the collapse of his soul and of his will to live, that plays out in tears and shudders excruciatingly real and heart-shattering. When he decides to fulfill Hedda's previously expressed dream in life ("For once in my life I want to feel that I control a human destiny.") by accepting her gift of a pistol and her challenge to "do it beautifully," Mr. Champlin's Eilert leaves a parting impression that elicits much sympathy and sadness.

Other key performances are too often uneven in this production, sometimes feeling more manufactured than natural. And as powerful as some moments are—particularly between Hedda and Eilert—the overall production under the direction of Dale Albright does not consistently have the tension, the edge, or even the face validity that Hedda Gabler demands as a drama. The reason is partly a pacing issue and partly the uneven level of acting. Also, the director's choice to stage this production in a stadium style with rows of audience parallel to the long stage itself does not in this instance work as well as that choice has worked in past Pear productions (e.g., the 2016 Uncle Vanya). Facing in full stage light the other half of the audience often is distracting and takes energy away from the action at hand and, at times, important facial reactions of especially Hedda are lost when her back is turned to one half of the audience. Finally, the final demise of Hedda feels almost like a non-event the way it is presented and the near matter-of-fact way the others react. The play just abruptly ends with a quick lights out, with the audience seemingly not knowing at first whether to clap or to wait for one more short scene of the aftermath.

While the interpretations given Hedda and Eilert are noteworthy and definitely worthwhile to experience, the power of Ibsen's classic story of this strongly effecting woman who has both confounded and fascinated audiences for the past hundred-plus years is overall lackluster in this particular adaption and production of Hedda Gabler.

Hedda Gabler, through October 28, 2018, at Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida, Mountain View CA. Tickets are available at www.thepear.org or by calling 650-254-1148.


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