‘Hedda Gabbler’ is right on target

“And why should I be happy?” bored ex-aristocrat Hedda Gabbler (Christianna Nelson DRA ’05) asks a friend in the Yale School of Drama’s production of the Ibsen classic.

The unsatisfied housewife — glamorous, beautiful and as skilled in flirting as she is in marksmanship — spends her days jealously scheming her friends’ downfalls while avoiding the advances of her dweebish husband George Tesman (Jeff Barry DRA ’05).

“Hedda Gabbler,” directed by Christopher Carter Sanderson DRA ’05, is a skillful coup. Like the brains-and-beauty titular character, this production has it all: impressive props, convincing performances by each member of the small cast and, of course, the adept tragicomic script, translated from Norwegian by Doug Hughes.

Through all of Hedda’s reckless boredom (the ad for the play cleverly pronounces her as “the original desperate housewife”), she speaks achingly about her desires for excitement, exoticism and storybook endings. She is both compelling and sympathetic, despite the fact that she accentuates her arguments by pointing pistols at friends and that she gets her jollies by taunting teetotaler friend Eilert Lovborg (Stephen Moore ’05) into raging alcoholism.

The strength of the audience’s sympathy with Hedda lies in Nelson’s outstanding performance. With a hulking blonde beauty-pageant bouffant and flashy costume jewelry, the actress, who looks like a cross between Calista Flockhart and Cate Blanchett, manages to create a woman who is both disgustingly manipulative and inexplicably sympathetic.

Barry’s Tesman is also notable. The actor creates a character so maddeningly un-hip that every single thing about him — not just his geeky woven slippers and Fuhrer mustache but his voice and habit of adding “Hm?” to the end of each sentence — grate on the nerves and align the viewer’s sympathies increasingly with the beleaguered Hedda. And perhaps that is the point.

While the vests, dresses and hats worn by the performers create an authentic late-1800s feel, one unfortunate shortcoming in costuming is the unconvincing geriatrification of household maid Berta (Lisa Birnbaum DRA ’07) and doting Aunt Julie Tesman (Emily Dorsch DRA ’07). While making a young person look AARP-ready may be next to impossible without a lavish budget, the graphite-colored wigs and lipliner-sketched wrinkles skirted the border of ludicrousness.

The entirety of the on-stage action takes place in the Tesmans’ lavishly decorated home. In a conversation with quasi-homewrecker Judge Brack (Jacob Knoll DRA ’05), with whom Hedda maintains an especially flirty relationship, Nelson explains how she acquired the house: She mentioned to her husband that she wanted it merely to resuscitate an awkward moment in their conversation. The ferociously devoted Tesman then set out to buy it for her, of course, and all the stilted interactions between the odd couple and their guests have occurred with the backdrop of lush divans and armies of decorative wooden soldiers ever since.

And oh, what stilted interactions Nelson creates. Though the character’s high-class upbringing has accustomed her to a world of constant parties and teeming piles of calling cards, her husband’s unsteady finances have forced Nelson to refine her idea of entertaining. Instead of coquetry with wealthy officers at soirees, she must settle for talking like some sort of 19th-century 1-900 phone line operator to her husband’s friends while her husband mixes drinks in another room. Similarly, instead of catching up with girlfriends over tea, she invites childhood enemies such as Thea Elvsted (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart DRA ’07) over and threatens to burn their hair off.

On the surface, “Hedda Gabbler” is a relatively unmitigated tale of despair and dangerous boredom. But innovative set design and solid acting help breathe life into the tragic story arc, and even infuse the play with a wry humor. The story invites the audience to wallow in despair for its poor protagonist, yet this superb production inspires understanding — and even amusement — as well.

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