Thursday, January 29, 2009

At Last a "Hedda" I can Live with!

Mary Louise Parker - a Tantalizing "Hedda"

Dear Postcards from New York Reader,

I just happened to casually mention I had never seen a "Hedda" that satisfied my concept of her to a group gathered around author Joan Templeton after her lecture at Scandinavia House on "Munch’s Ibsen", when one of the guest said she was eagerly waiting to see Mary Louise Parker in "Hedda Gabler." To my surprise, several others quickly chimed in with their agreement; they too had never seen a "Hedda" they felt truly captured the character.

While I have seen five versions of my favorite Ibsen play, some of the group had seen many more. They spoke of Maggie Smith (the woman I have always wished I could have seen on stage as Hedda) and Liv Ullman in the role. (Apparently, there was no Ibsen in the Bergman/Maggie Smith Hedda…only Bergman.) Wow! Not one had seen a "Hedda" they could wrap their mind around! I knew "Hedda," the female “Hamlet,” was a role only formidable actresses dared to tackle, but this was a revelation.

Is it any wonder then, the mixed, and in some cases merciless reviews (Ben Brantley’s the most scathing) this new production has received? My thoughts went to “why” almost everyone who has read or seen “Hedda” is seduced by her character, and becomes so possessive, they are outraged (to the point of walking out in the middle of performances) when directors and adapters take liberties with the text and infuse the play with what "they" want it to mean.

Ibsen is brilliant. Whether male or female, we see a tiny bit or perhaps more of our worst traits in her. She is as difficult to grasp as why it is, we do the things we do. She is not simply pure evil, relentlessly wicked, cruel, an unlikable villain or just a mean-spirited bitch, as she has often been portrayed.

Caught in a curious web of malaise, frustrated dreams, unrealistic hopes (Eilert Lovborg as Bacchus…really) childish envy, and secret sexual curiosity, Hedda leads the men in her life in a dangerous dance until one of them presumes to take “the lead.” Mary Louise Parker, with subtle nuanced expressions and flashing eyes, creates a compressed desperate portrait I can embrace. While some of the actors such as Ana Reeder are unfortunately weak and no serious foil to Hedda; (and I do not agree with all of Christopher Shinn’s changes to the text), there was more I liked in the production than disliked.

Wide open doors and high soaring ceilings replace the usual dark, oppressive late Victorian setting to offer a new opportunity to see these characters dwarfed in this space. Changes to the opening scene, where we catch a glimpse of Hedda partially disrobed in an unguarded moment beside herself with restless ennui at the piano, lingered with me until the closing moments…at the piano. While she rearranges and uncovers furniture, we capture a very different image of Hedda from the one that forms in our mind as we “hear” about her long before we “see” her in the conversation between the nervous housekeeper and her husband’s aunt in the original. Ann Roth’s sumptuous costumes add elegance and keep eyes glued to Hedda’s many mood changes, from playful and naughty to seductive temptress.

Let me not forget the piano, because the score by P.J. Harvey is another intriguing layer that mirrors Hedda's interior frustration. Relentless repetitive notes on the piano seethe and build to finally explode like an inescapable migraine headache.

My advice, see the play, read the play and decide if you think Mary Louise Parker comes close to how you imagine Hedda, and if not, why not? Time is running out, the limited engagement production at the American Airlines Theatre closes March 29.

Jacqueline Cable

Address to Remember: The American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10011. 212-719-1300,

Directions: At Times Square.

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  • Photo courtesy of Sara Krulwich

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