Among the uncountable curiosities that cycle and recycle through social media is a page of historic black-and-white photographs somebody colorized, apparently to remind us that people like Charles Darwin and Mark Twain didn’t live their lives in monochrome—that they once had flesh-toned skin and stylishly dyed clothes, just like us. The point is obvious, but the effect is still remarkable. People we’re used to seeing as chronologically remote are suddenly comprehensible as warm-blooded souls. A little of their grandness is lost, maybe, but a lot of their humanity is restored.
Writers Theatre has achieved pretty much the same effect with Hedda Gabler, Henrik Ibsen’s 1891 drama about a young bourgeois married woman whose boredom and anger lead her to play reckless games.
Even some excellent Heddas lack the color of life. The directors are either overawed by the play’s status as a landmark of naturalist theater or determined to beatify the doomed rebels at its core or anxious lest we walk away without having taken Ibsen’s feminist point. This staging by Kimberly Senior is up there with—and maybe beyond—the best I’ve seen, precisely because it doesn’t settle for sanctity. Kate Fry is both nasty-funny and ridiculous in the title role—and so pissed off over the horrid pleasantness of her life that her every gesture becomes a howl restrained by decorum. The woman seems this close, at times, to going ninja on her parlor furniture.
But then she seems this close to a lot of things. Fry’s Hedda is by turns a proto-Ayn Rand, a sexual obsessive out of an August Strindberg script, a small-time Borgia, a wry Beckettian fool. The marvel of the performance is its variousness, its refusal to reduce the character to black and white.
Crucially, the same is true of every other performance here. As the men in Hedda’s life, Sean Fortunato, Scott Parkinson, and Mark Montgomery manipulate the conventional Ibsenian schematics to generate all kinds of rich, wholly believable shadings. The show is sharp and ambiguous, entertaining and so awfully painful. Vivid.