A new translation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler by San Diegan Anne-Charlotte Hanes Harvey (Dinner with Marlene) at least figuratively speaking brings the 125-year-old play into the 21st century. The North Coast Repertory Theatre’s production directed by David Ellenstein resembles the Heddas you’ve probably seen before with their period costumes and opulent furnishings. At NCR, Marty Burnett’s set, Elisa Benzoni’s costume design and Matt Novotny’s lighting are collectively outstanding. In this iteration of Hedda Gabler, the difference is how at times Hedda (Mhari Sandoval) and those in her destructive sphere of influence sound more contemporary, and even get laughs.
In spite of its literary pedigree, Hedda Gabler possesses the pulsating emotions and interpersonal machinations of a cracking good daytime serial, except that everything in its four acts revolves around one central, overriding character: Hedda, a beautiful, aristocratic, larger-than-life neurotic as cold as she is willful. Moving with the easy grace of a pampered cat, Sandoval brings tremendous sex appeal to the role, even though Ibsen’s heroine only teases and poses. She’s a woman who flinches from actual physical contact. That aloofness is intended especially for her new husband Jorgen Tesman (Bruce Turk), whom she wed neither out of love nor lust. Turk does well as a stammering academic propped up in direct contrast to another man in Hedda’s life, the snidely confident Judge Brack (Ray Chambers, tall and leering).
The arrival of always-charismatic Richard Baird as Hedda’s tortured ex-lover Eilert Lovborg in Act 2 follows a slow, talky first act. This ominous turn in Ibsen’s story, which also involves the young lovestruck (over Lovburg) Thea Elvsted (Mel House) raises the narrative stakes and inspires Hedda to do her damnedest.
Hedda Gabler, even in this world-premiere translation, is a drawing-room kind of drama with few of its contrivances as intriguing as the portrait of complex Hedda herself. Why else do you think so many esteemed actresses of stage and screen (Ingrid Bergman, Diana Rigg, Cate Blanchett, to name three) have played her – and so many others desire to do so?
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.