Hedda Gabler

by John Stoltenberg

Watching Julia Coffey’s feline and feral performance in the title role of Studio Theatre’s sleek and stark staging of Hedda Gabler is to witness the trainwreck that is Ibsen’s enigmatic character in a transfixing new light.

The production directed with polish by Matt Torney in a terrific adaptation of the text by Mark O’Rowe plays like a swift contemporary psychol0logical thriller. With its crisply idiomatic dialogue and frequently overlapping lines, it feels like the sort of fresh new writing that Artistic Director David Muse  typically programs, a script that’s Studio’s forte. You’d never guess the play premiered 125 years ago. As such Studio’s updating is a perfect entry point for anyone who knows nothing about the play. At the same time for anyone familiar with Hedda Gabler as a great role in dramatic literature—which like the part of Hamlet yields more meaning each time it is played by a fine actor—this show is a thorough thrill.

Set Designer Luciana Stecconi locates the story in a gray-on-gray minimalist modern living room—an apt metaphor for Hedda’s restless emptiness and ennui. The tipoff that we’re not in Norway where the play was originally set is a military photograph (of the general who is Hedda’s father) that has a stars-and-stripes background. Other than that detail, the place looks un-lived-in, as if styled by a realtor for resale. The fact it seems more Albee or Reza than period Ibsen foreshadows the vicious ferocity to come.

The actors who play the characters who circle Hedda’s volatile vortex are superb. As the academic Jorge Tessman, the husband Hedda recently married with whom she is already bored, Avery Clark brings an earnestness and puppy-dog eagerness. As Jorge’s aunt Julie Tessman, whom Hedda rudely insults, Kimberly Schraf is touchingly well-meaning. As Berta the maid, whom Hedda imperiously berates, Rosemary Regan is appropriately timid and tremulous. As Thea, who is smitten with the man whom Hedda carries a crazed torch for, Kimiye Corwin is girlish and guileless.

Though Hedda’s honeymoon was a six-month yawn, there are two men in the play who are both former flames, and they are each crotch-deep in sexual tension with her. As Eljert, whom Hedda desires though he once attempted to rape her, Shane Kenyon is a marvel at playing both sexy and more messed-up than Hedda. As Judge Brack, who out-cons the conniving Hedda and sexually ensnares her, Michael Early is smooth operator incarnate.

Much has been written over the years that views the character of Hedda Gabler as a victim of male-supremacist circumstance—a creature trapped within the society of Ibsen’s time and the men’s world in which he set the play. Ibsen himself encouraged that interpretation, and many a feminist critic has run with it—not without sound grounds both textually and socio-politically.

But the staging now playing at Studio shines a very different light on Hedda’s character. In shifting the story to here and now, it confronts us with someone who might be effed-up not because she’s a woman in a man’s world but because her moral compass is out of whack as a human being.

She was bored on her honeymoon travels because her husband was absorbed in researching his next book, but she couldn’t, um, visit a museum? She keeps going on about needing beauty in her life but she can’t, like, take an art-appreciation course? She can’t make a female friend and have a conversation that maybe could pass the Bechdel test? This is a white woman with so much privilege she could pretty much have it all. If she decided to carry to term her pregnancy she’s even already got a live-in nanny. The world is her oyster not her cloister.

Seeing Studio’s refreshing new take on Hedda Gabler, in particular Julia Coffey’s phenomenal performance as Hedda, reminded me of something Gloria Steinem once said: “I want to see the day when a mediocre woman can go as far as a mediocre man.” 

Perhaps we have come to the day when a female character on stage can be a fascinating bitch with the same entitlement that a male character can be a bastard.