- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2006

It’s not often audience members engage in heated discussions during the intermission of a play, a time when restrooms and refreshments are usually the priorities.

“I think she does it out of guilt,” said the husband.

“She feels guilty about the way she treats people.” “What—are you nuts?” the wife fired back. “Guilt, schmilt. Hedda Gabler’s the way she is because women had narrow choices back then. She did it because she was a smart woman with nowhere to go and nothing to do.”

Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” has a way of getting your hackles up. Even though the play is 106 years old and frequently performed in period style, there isn’t a trace of lavender and dried rose petals to be found. That’s especially true for Olney Theater Center’s first-rate production, directed with an actor’s keen eye by Halo Wines.

Everything in this intimate staging —the audience is so close to the stage we are practically guests in the Tesman family’s parlor — is well-appointed and refined, from the discreet heat of the performances, to James Kronzer’s high-hat set (the looming doors, curtains, and molding are the color of filthy lucre) and the elaborate, entrapping costumes by Howard Vincent Kurtz.

The play is set entirely in the fashionable parlor of George Tesman (Christopher Lane), a young professor and fuddy-duddy in the making, and his new bride Hedda (Julie-Ann Elliott).

From the first time we glimpse Hedda, we can see she’s high maintenance. Her critical eye and sour mouth point out things not up to snuff both real and feigned. She manages to insult George’s doting aunt Julianna (Anne Stone) with a zinger directed at her silly little hat even before the honeymoon baggage has been unpacked.

Hedda saves most of her venom for George, who is as ordinary and broken-in as the beloved bedroom slippers his aunts embroidered for him. Played with frumpy, distracted elan by Mr. Lane, George acts like he’s amazed and befuddled at having landed such a prize as the lovely Hedda. And she knows where to aim her sarcasm — right where it will wound her husband the most.

Hedda is not only a witch on wheels, but profoundly bored. The only bright spot in her day are visits from Judge Brack (Michael Howell), who is well-matched in cunning with Hedda. He has designs to be the third side in a love triangle, but Hedda does not seem to take any pleasure in sexual matters and almost seems repulsed by the very idea.

To amuse herself, she conspires to ruin the life of old school chum Mrs. Elvsted (Maia DeSanti), who has become an inspiration to Hedda’s former flame, reformed reprobate and writer Eilert Lovborg (Jeffries Thaiss). If she can also blithely destroy Lovborg in the process, all the better.

Hedda’s behavior is monstrous, but thrilling to watch.

You are outraged by her antics, but intrigued by what drives her. Why does she do it? Is it hatred, or boredom, or is she amoral and therefore purely, completely wicked? Ibsen never definitively gives the answer to Hedda’s behavior, asking only that we look upon this outsized creature with awe and perhaps a touch of compassion.

Miss Elliott takes a little warming up to as Hedda, especially in the first act when she is chilly and contrary to the point where you wonder why anyone would want to be in the same room with her. By the second act, the reserve has dropped, and we begin to see an edgier side to Miss Elliott’s Hedda. As the walls start closing in, she becomes more attractive. Disappointment and desperation become her.

Nowhere is this more evident than in a torchy scene with Lovborg, who has once again fallen into dissipation because of Hedda’s deviousness. Mr. Thaiss radiates a certain frantic charisma as Lovborg — a man who knows his life is finished, and his reunion with Hedda is lovely and doomed — and gives the play its only erotic charge.

Depending on your point of view, “Hedda Gabler” is either a wrathful condemnation of Victorian societal constraints and the suppression of females as a whole, or an unflinching psychological portrait of a hellbound woman with the vicious energy of a Medea; someone alluring and lethal at the same time. No matter whether you consider Hedda a feminist icon or the Hindu goddess Kali in a corset, Ibsen’s play and this worthy production will hold you in its thrall.

***

WHAT: “Hedda Gabler” by Henrik Ibsen

WHERE: Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

WHEN: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays, 8:15 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2:15 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through July 23.

TICKETS: $34 to $44

PHONE: 301/924-3400

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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