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TIME IS NOT KIND to artistic mediocrity. Only a work of drama that deserves continuing attention endures, but the demands of such excellence are enormously risky, for a bad performance can obscure the integrity of the play itself.
Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler is a flawed masterpiece, but a masterpiece nonetheless. The plot, a study in conflict and alienation, revolves around a brilliant and selfish woman caught between fierce inner pride and contempt for those nearest her, between past choice and present entrapment, between a stifling marriage and fascination with an old admirer now involved with another woman.
Though Hedda always occupies the play's center, Ibsen's profound insight and tight structure integrate the other characters as complex personalities in their own right. There is Hedda's bumbling, self-important husband George Tesman; his well-meaning spinster aunt; the gifted and unbalanced Eilert Lovborg; the parasitically devoted Thea Elvsted Hedda's rival as Lovborg's muse; and the suave dissolute Judge Brack, whose cynical attempt to blackmail Hedda precipitates her defiant suicide.
They are not a particularly attractive bunch; and one of the work's major problems is that the audience is drawn into the play less by empathy than by sheer fascination with Ibsen's unerring craft. Similar problems exist with the dominant structure of dualities and negations. What is said is often far different from what is meant. Hedda maintains inner autonomy by contemptuous manipulation of others, and the culminating suicide grotesquely affirms freedom, leaving the onlooker shaken but less than profoundly moved.
The Winthrop House production faithfully reproduces Ibsen's disturbing vision, but like any other Hedda Gabler it must stand or fall on the interpretation of the lead role. Fortunately, Amy Aquino delivers a strong and deftly-controlled performance. In her physical expression, especially, she holds Hedda's dichotomies in convincing balance. The cold, intense eyes and queenly carriage reflect her aristocratic upbringing and twisted idealism, while slight gestures--hands rubbed nervously together, a flash of anguish in the face--betray the tensions seething within her. Aquino centers the drama's energy by compressing it, displaying a clenched surface that makes Hedda's moments of abandon to manic impulse all the more chilling.
As the weak and pedantic husband of convenience whom Hedda has come to despise, David Edelstein delivers a performance of convincing contrast to Aquino. His smaller stature reflects a personality of petty dimensions, and he plays it with the right touch of insecure eagerness and earnest naivete. Tesman's pride is his books, his major tension Lovborg's intellectual competition and his own half-admitted jealousy--a myopic outlook that leaves little room for his smothered wife.
On the other hand, Stephen Toope is badly miscast as Eilert Lovborg. Ibsen clearly intended to represent Lovborg as a figure of undisciplined genius, a man whose capacity for passion, even if manifested in debauchery, contrasts alluringly with Tesman's effete conventionality. Yet in this performance Hedda displays no more respect for Lovborg than for anyone else, a major misinterpretation but understandable in view of Toope's characterization. His Lovborg is weak, sulky, and scarcely more worthy of Hedda's interest than Tesman. His only intensity comes in response to Hedda's baiting, and he conveys it as a kind of impotent frenzy.
With the exception of Margaret Heilbrun's kindly, effusive Aunt Julia, the other performances also fail to satisfy. Like Hedda, Judge Brack treats those around him with ironically-concealed scorn, matching Hedda's intelligence and selfishness in an intricate struggle for power. But Sam Merrick's wooden caricature blunts Aquino's subtlety. By the end of the play, his languid arrogance and unvarying inflection--each line curved with a sneer--have become thoroughly tiresome. While Ibsen undoubtedly intended Thea Elvsted to be a bland contrast to Hedda, Jennifer Mohr's dull, anxious characterization offers no emotional range or sense of internal processes whatever.
Director Scott Goldsmith has nicely integrated the Winthrop House Junior Common Room into the play's set, a Scandinavian drawing-room at the turn of the century. Unfortunately his production is not as well-integrated into Ibsen's original. Instead, thoughtful direction, strong lead performances and very uneven supporting roles show the audience a masterpiece--and how close a production can come to botching it.
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