Los Angeles Herald
Monday, June 9, 1986
Reflections on a ‘Hedda Gabler’ for our times
By Richard Stayton
Herald theater critic

Henry James called her “infinitely perverse”. Mary McCarthy wrote that she is “neurotic,” a victim of the “psychopathology of everyday life.” Critic Jan Kott analyzed her condition as “sexually paralyzed.” Kenneth Tynan saw her as “the perfect embodiment of the philosophy of de Sade.”

Who is this woman and why do 20th century scholars say such Freudian things about her? After all, the only event Hedda Tesman professes to fear is public scandal, her only talent “boring myself to death.” Her creator had only heard rumors of a Dr. Freud and never read any of his psychoanalytical studies. Still, in Henrik Ibsen’s seminal 1890 masterpiece, “Hedda Gabler,” the Norwegian playwright conceived a heroine so deliciously ambiguous and exotically banal - not to mention one of modern drama’s few epic roles for actresses - that almost a century later we continue arguing over just who this woman is. Yet we try to dismiss her as a dangerous bitch, a frustrated feminist, a blocked artist, a fading symbol of the Victorian era. Like a nightmare out of Freud’s “The Interpretation of Dreams,” we might prefer not to see her at all.

On the James A. Doolittle stage we not only see Hedda, but we see ourselves seeing her. The effect is subtly, exquisitely realized by director Robert Egan and his gifted designer David Jenkins, the first of many stunning effects gracing the Mark Taper Forum second production of its sixth repertory season.

At first, Ibsen purists might howl “sacrilege” when the curtains open on Egan’s “Hedda Gabler.” Missing is a crucial prop, a classic clue to the mystery of Hedda: the portrait of her father, General Gabler. This painting is the symbol toward which directors invariably aim their Heddas, a gothic tyrant brooding on the parlor’s rear wall. Under General Gabler’s painting, the oppressed Mrs. Tesman must always wallow in ennui. Audiences soon see that George Tesman has no chance keeping his bride free from the ghost of his father-in-law. No wonder Hedda helplessly manipulates men toward suicide and compulsively undermines her marriage.

The woman just can’t help it.

Such an easy Freudian cliche allows audiences to conveniently dismiss Hedda’s quiet desperation. But Egan interprets Ibsen far less remotely. Gone is the portrait, but all else in the Tesman’s new villa fits Ibsen’s stage directions. We see on this stage the Victorian drawing room with a view through sliding doors of the inner tearoom and of a garden beyond. There are the antique lamps and sofas and writing tables. All is just as Ibsen commands, except for the addition of a massive, full-length mirror.

Despite its discreet location in a corner, this mirror seems grotesque, inhuman, belonging in a fantasy, not in a proper drawing room. Tilted, it reflects the actors and the audience. This mirror becomes a 1986 portrait of General Gabler, and in it we become partners in Ibsen’s drama, ghosts of Hedda’s nightmare.

Egan’s revisionist ploy is to make Ibsen our contemporary, and Hedda’s vicious behavior a reflection of our own society. This mirror is the first, precise signal that we’re off on a rigorous, stately journey. There are no wasted motions here, and above all no pandering to a contemporary audience’s conditioned expectations. Egan trusts Ibsen’s story. He believes that under its icy Victorian manner sizzles a nuclear reactor about to experience meltdown.

Ice is what we feel with our first sight of Kate Mulgrew’s Hedda Tesman. Contrary to Ibsen’s stage directions, Egan immediately has Hedda in the shadowed parlor. She sits in the gloom, smoking a cigarette, waiting. Egan and Mulgrew deny the conventional Hedda stereotypes of a caged cat or trapped victim. Nor is this Hedda a frustrated Lady MacBeth, merely envious of men’s freedom and power. Something far more profoundly dangerous is at work in this woman’s soul. There is no hysteria, ever, in Mulgrew’s cool restraint. No hints of lesbianism emerge when she strokes the hair of Mrs. Elvsted (Linda Purl, in a refreshingly muted performance).

But after a banal statement by her husband, George Tesman (Michael Gross), concerning his joy over cutting the pages of new books, Mulgrew’s Hedda shields her face with her hands and shudders with involuntary, muted, maniacal laughter. Or is it loathing?

Mulgrew’s Hedda remains a mystery, changing shape each time we project a new interpretation. Even at the climax, as she burns author Eilert Lovberg’s “child” (the only copy of his manuscript), we cannot dismiss this Hedda as a witch. Mulgrew makes Ibsen’s Hedda a femme fatale Hamlet.

Michael Gross is perfect as Hedda’s ineffectual, academic husband, transforming his flaws as the geriatric playwright in “The Real Thing” (the Taper’s other repertory offering) into a near-flawless performance.

Dakin Matthews is a memorable Judge Brack (although signs of his recent Dr. Watson portrayal shadow his work here).  Exceptional is George Deloy as the doomed romantic writer, Lovborg. The ensemble’s timing is sublime, a tribute to Taper artistic director Gordon Davidson’s faith in the importance of a permanent repertory company in a proscenium house.

The lighting by Martin Aronstein is inspired. Egan begins our journey on a slow Victorian train, but by the time we arrive at our destination we’re traveling via Concorde jet. We’ve been led from Ibsen’s symbolic realism to Egan’s stylized postmodernism. And if we kept our eyes open along the way, we could see an ominous reflection in the parlor mirror, the green exit sign behind us, signaling a way out.

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