Hedda Gabler

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Hedda Gabler is a fin de siecle meditation on affluence and its discontents. In the brilliant production at Steppenwolf, Henrik Ibsen’s 1890 indictment of Oslo social climbing becomes a contemporary statement about the moral rot that consumes individuals–and societies–when they measure themselves only by possessions and power.

More conventional Heddas concentrate on the title character’s entrapment in a society that gives women no options: the purpose is social criticism. Director Doug Hughes announces a very different approach in the first moment of his production, having Hedda stride rapidly onstage and off again through random patches of light and dark while incomprehensible voices fill the air. Even before the start of the play proper, we have the picture: Hedda is going nowhere fast. This begins a portrait of anomie every bit as pitiless and powerful as its expressionist antecedents.

Hedda (Martha Plimpton) is a beautiful, grasping woman who marries a dull scholar, Tesman (Matthew Sussman), with whom she has nothing in common except the desire for social ascension. She loathes his family, and her only friend in his group is Judge Brack (the splendidly smarmy Tom Irwin); both like to manipulate people just because they can. Into this snake pit comes Thea, a runaway from an unsympathetic husband, who has the bad luck to be running to one of Hedda’s unextinguished old flames, Eilert Lovborg. Hedda concocts a scheme to ruin Thea (Amy J. Carle) and bring Lovborg (Tim Hopper) back into her own orbit. She could be motivated by jealousy of Thea’s conquest, or she might envy Thea’s courage in escaping the bonds of marriage. But Hughes has bigger fish to fry: this Hedda wants to destroy because she has nothing else to do. “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport,” in the words of Lear.

Hedda doesn’t love Lovborg: she’s incapable of loving anyone, even herself, even her father, the venerated general whose portrait looms over the play’s proceedings like destruction incarnate. Empty, she resists being filled, as Ibsen lets us know with repeated allusions to Hedda’s horror at the possibility she’s pregnant. A feminist production might make pregnancy a part of her entrapment, but Hughes is concerned not with social justice but with existential dread–not with making Hedda sympathetic but with making her sickeningly recognizable.

And she is. Hedda is the logical extension of everyone who can’t think of a reason why his own needs shouldn’t come first. In Hedda’s case, those needs are both cause and excuse for every kind of bad behavior, from gratuitously insulting her husband’s good-hearted Aunt Julie (Jane Galloway Heitz) to shooting her father’s pistol past Judge Brack’s head and into the wall. And those acts only foreshadow the final destruction she wreaks–not accidentally, not in reaction to being socially confined, but just because she can. (“Why did you kill all those people?” Richard Pryor once asked a maximum-security prisoner, who replied, “They was home.”)

This is Hedda Gabler as Raskolnikov, destroying because “everything is permitted.” Like Dostoyevsky’s criminal, she’s totally disconnected from others, as Ibsen announces in the play’s title: though her married name is Tesman she remains Hedda Gabler, unable to join any group, even a family. (I don’t, of course, mean that married women shouldn’t keep their names–I kept mine. In a feminist production the title is a shout of freedom, but here it’s an indication of alienation.) And like Raskolnikov, Hedda is obsessed with power, mistaking the ability to harm (“I think I’ll set fire to your hair,” she tells Thea) for the ability to act courageously.

Courage and cowardice form one set of polarities in the piece, and life and death the other. The banks of white roses sent to the Tesmans to celebrate their marriage are arranged as if to cover a casket. And when Judge Brack brings flowers, they’re blood red–as though drawing blood were the only alternative to death or proof of being alive. When Hedda describes her shot at the wall as “just killing time,” she’s telling the literal truth: because her days have no meaning, she needs to destroy them. Nor is she content with ruining her own life. She also betrays Thea and baits Lovborg until he returns to the drinking and despair from which he’d only recently emerged. Perhaps it’s a bit much to deck Hopper out in flowing locks and eyeliner like a stained-glass savior, but the point is well-taken: this is a Christ whose sacrifice is for nothing.

Pointless sacrifice is also the subject of Steppenwolf’s Studio Theatre production–Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, written only a few years later. In fact both pieces examine the same situation: fatuous pseudoscholar brings disruptive bride into his social circle. But where Ibsen investigates the dynamic from the viewpoint of the newcomer, Chekhov addresses it from the perspective of the circle she disrupts. Imagine a Hedda Gabler that brings Aunt Julie to the fore and you have Uncle Vanya. Both playwrights raise questions about the role of self-sacrifice among people imprisoned by listlessness and futility.

Surprisingly, Chekhov’s play is by far the gloomier of the two. Ibsen’s comfort–that things would be better if people lived for one another–may be cold, but it is comfort. By contrast Chekhov’s self-sacrificers, Vanya and his niece Sonya, are ultimately supported only by the happy thought that eventually they’ll die. (It’s a tribute to Sheldon Patinkin’s direction, and to Monica Payne’s tender, layered performance as Sonya, that this speech actually sounds encouraging.) Goodness carries no guarantee of meaning: Vanya and Dr. Astrov are both painfully good, working for others, depriving themselves of sleep and food and interesting work, and their reward is to be deprived of what they love most. Meanwhile, idiots like the pseudoscholar Serebryakov make out just fine. At least Ibsen punishes everyone who deserves it (as well as a few who don’t) and concludes by giving Thea and Tesman something from which to make meaning.

Plimpton gives an extraordinary performance as Hedda. Whether shaking off her husband’s touch or pawing her guests like a spider with a brand-new fly or just standing still with eyes racing back and forth, she’s like Joan Crawford on speed: completely in command and completely lost. She integrates her mood swings into a single manic force focused on–nothing. And Plimpton resists the temptation to elicit the audience’s sympathy: she is as unspeakable as this production requires. Hedda may lack courage, but Plimpton has it to spare.

The supporting cast are uniformly strong, but Irwin and Heitz stand out. The visual elements–Neil Patel’s set, Catherine Zuber’s costumes, and Michael Chybowski’s lighting–create stark contrasts that underline the play’s stark choices. David Van Tieghem’s eerie, almost alarming sound design brilliantly complements Hughes’s vision and the actors’ work.

When Vanya says that he drinks and carries on “because it feels just a little bit like being alive,” he captures the central question of Hedda Gabler too: how to live in the face of evidence that life is painful and futile. The plays’ answers, though different, resonate with each other in a feat of parallel programming (or a visitation of dumb luck) that makes Steppenwolf the place to go for this summer’s existential crisis. i

The following plays are reviewed this week in Section Two: Blue Surge, Captain Virtue and the Champions of Justice, Clouds, The Dana & Julia Show, Flanagan’s Wake and The Baritones, Justice Is Served, The Misanthrope, Scooby-Doo Mystery Theatre II, The Taming of the Shrew, Tough!, and Waiting for the Sunrise.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.