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Review: 'Hedda' Fueled by Destruction

Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is a smooth, precise ride on a coaster ending in the characters’ destruction

By Benjamin J. Soskin, On Theater

When Henrik Ibsen wrote Hedda Gabler, he created characters whose psychologies would push them ever closer to destruction as the play progressed. Chekhov said that if a gun is onstage in the first act, it will go off in the last act; Ibsen is so bent on his characters’ destruction that he puts onstage two guns, a lighter, and a bar full of flammable alcohol. The move over Hedda’s duration from relative peace to high-strung shooting and burning is inexorable, highly telegraphed and oh-so-precisely plotted, rarely allowing a spare motivation or interaction to take place along the path to the final horror.

That precision, for better and worse, pervades the play’s new Loeb Ex staging, which opened on Friday and runs through this Saturday. There’s precision in its characters’ affected mannerisms, split-second swivels of mood and stuffy social conventions; there’s artful precision in the slow pacing of its lighting changes. The play is a Swiss watch, and the Ex production exposes its grinding, churning gears for all to see: audience members box in the action on three sides, and the set—decorated with glass, sheer fabrics and transparent plastic-wrap pillars—offers the characters no protection from the audience’s gaze.

The titular Hedda (Rebecca J. Levy ’06) is a passionate hellion whose life as a new wife is studded with geniuses, bores and powermongers. There is her husband (Daniel J. Wilner ’07), an eager lunkhead academic; his delicate aunt (Megan E.M. Low ’04); a former schoolmate of Hedda’s (Mary E. Birnbaum ’07); and a primly lecherous judge (Jess R. Burkle ’06). These figures spend the first half of the play manipulating each other to the extent their respective brain sizes permit, with Hedda’s capriciousness as the only uncertain variable in their stiflingly precise and proper interactions.

Then, just before intermission, a catalytic gale blows in a tousled malcontent called Lovborg (John C. Dewis). He’s brilliant, he’s wry and he’s long been nursing a passion for Hedda. And when he and Hedda butt heads, they touch off a string of events with uniformly tragic consequences.

It’s hard to overstate how good Dewis is in this show. Part of his greatness comes from his role; Lovborg is a tortured, fiery soul who draws audience empathy like iron filings to a magnet. But there’s more to Dewis’ turn than that; he hinted at a talent for understatement in Roberto Zucco earlier this season, and here he makes good on that promise. His performance is restrained, but neither bland nor mannered; it’s unpredictable and insightful, but never unrealistic or ill-defined. He did have a habit of swallowing his lines when I saw him on opening night, but he may improve as the run goes on.

Another way of putting it is that Dewis’ performance is as good as Levy’s is ill-conceived. Her performance is hot-blooded, alert, thoroughly aware—and eminently unbelievable. Levy isn’t untalented, because her blue-moon moments of credibility here are clearly instinctual. But her Hedda is recklessly artificial and horribly overplanned. For a while, I thought that her cartoonishness might have been the point of her performance; but, in truth, many of her Harvard turns (most egregiously in The Waverly Gallery and Chess, but even in minor twaddle like Ivory Towers) have suffered from the same overthought, reactive theatricality so often and inexplicably mistaken for the height of realism—in which every movement and inflection is beautiful, but deliberate and unspontaneous. There is no unconsciousness to her; her gestures and her words are always in sync with her thoughts. Even when the focus on stage is away from her, she is always “on” and never abstracted or distracted, never betraying a hint of inner life—in short, never acting like a real person.

Thank goodness for her support. Besides Dewis, there’s Wilner’s bumbler, always with his head craned forward in a clownish jut; Burkle, who ingratiates himself to the audience with his deft comic timing; and Low, her brisk aunt perhaps too crisp but never unappealing. Technical direction is by Blase E. Ur ’07, the complex, transparent set is designed by Melissa E. Goldman ’06 and the deliberate lighting by Kelzie E. Beebe ’04. John T. Drake ’06 contributes a punchy sound design which includes a mix of innovative music cues, many of which conjure images of the dance-loving Hedda at a modern-day rave.

It’s all overseen by director Michael M. Donahue ’05, who has done a noble job of justifying Ibsen’s occasionally infuriating text—a text which smugly chides us for thinking that it could end in joy. Donahue’s choices are original and appropriate, and he’s wrung fine work from the bulk of his cast and crew. I couldn’t say that Hedda Gabler’s a must-see during these final high-intensity weeks of class, but it’s not a play to turn down, either; this cast and crew is worth encouraging.

—Crimson reviewer Benjamin J. Soskin can be reached at

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