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Once More With Feeling 

Despite some too-restrained performances, the power of Ibsen's classic Hedda Gabler shines through

Wednesday, Apr 18 2001
"Christ, it's nonstop with these aunts!" hisses Hedda.

"What?" says Tesman, her new husband and nephew of the aunts in question. Poor Hedda Tesman, nee Gabler, is already sick of her marriage and her annoying in-laws, but instead of repeating the phrase to her husband's face she gives Georg Tesman a brittle, faux-proper smile, and says nothing. The scene capsulizes all of Hedda Gabler. Stacy Ross plays it gracefully, striking a fickle balance between Hedda's bust-out urges and her social restraint.

Ibsen's tragedy about a proper young wife seething with improper desires has been revived by the Aurora, as you'd expect, in a focused and keenly detailed production. Bernard Shaw called Hedda one of Ibsen's "objective anti-idealist" plays, a phase that came after his first tragedies about heroic men blinded by their own ideals. "Now that he understood the matter," Shaw wrote, "Ibsen could see plainly the effect of idealism as a social force on people quite unlike himself: that is to say, on everyday people in everyday life: on shipbuilders, bank managers, parsons, and doctors, as well as on saints, romantic adventurers, and emperors." Hedda Gabler is an everyday woman with enough sense to recognize her life as frivolous and narrow but not enough courage to change it. She's idealistic but not strong, and her vacillations lead her in the direction of so many of Ibsen's leading ladies -- toward an offstage corner of the house, where the pistols are kept.

In some ways, Stacy Ross is exactly the person you'd want to see as Hedda. She has a flowing talent contained in a disciplined body, with steely eyes and a grim-set mouth. For most of the play she's palpably tense, holding her breath and faking pleasant conversation. She's also good at snippy comments like the one about the aunts. ("My old house slippers!" Tesman says in another scene, showing the ugly things to Hedda. "Ah, right," she says coldly. "You referred to them more than once on the honeymoon.") What she doesn't do as well is the morbid romanticism Hedda lapses into near the end, hearing the story of Lövborg's -- her ex-lover's -- suicide. Ross is too disciplined and straight to show Hedda's dark, deluded swooniness; she makes her fantasy about his heroic death seem almost reasonable.

Georg Tesman is also too straight. Steve Marvel plays him as a perfect nerd, sniveling and fey, but crosses a line between the annoying role and the annoying performance. He wears a smart brown jacket, a high collar, and spectacles. "Look at you!" his Aunt Julia says in the first act, boosting Tesman's ego as a newlywed and young householder just coming into his own -- "Look-at-you!" -- and Marvel almost blushes; the image of Tesman as a spoiled little prince is solid. But in the crucial final scenes he can't hold it together, and his emotion when Hedda burns Lövborg's cherished manuscript feels forced.

These problems, though, can't restrain the tragedy's overall force. Director Loy Arcenas has paced it beautifully. He's also found an actor for Lövborg, the ex-lover (and white-knuckle alcoholic), who must be exactly what Ib- sen imagined. Marvin Greene has a square-cut face, black hair touched with gray, and blue eyes; he's correct but not pretentious in his tie and suit and visibly hungry in Hedda's presence. Stacy Ross plays off this tension well and seems nervously addled under his gaze; the lust between them is so thick their history hardly needs to be told. I saw Greene two years ago in Strindberg's Dance of Death (also at the Aurora); in that production he seemed distracted, but here he finds a murderous focus that all but makes the play.

Beth Donohue is also excellent as Thea Elvsted, the governess who married her boss and then left him to be with Lövborg. She's girlish and gossipy, often out of breath, but devoted to Lövborg and afraid of Hedda, who used to pull her hair in school. ("One day," she complains, "you threatened to burn it.") Donohue's voice always seems to have an engine of emotion spinning underneath, but under Arcenas' direction she reserves its power for exactly one scene -- Lövborg's death -- which is the perfect place for it.

The reason for doing Hedda Gabler now seems to be as simple as Jon Robin Baitz's new translation: Arcenas landed the rights to produce it, so why not? But Hedda is also the sort of material the Aurora trades in -- hundred-odd-year-old stories that speak to the present without a stitch of superficial updating. The social rules have changed, but Hedda's idealism still exists, and her confused, unhappy fate still has a stark, immediate force.


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