In a bold stroke of artistic creativity, Hedda Gabler opened this weekend at The PACBox in New Milford for a limited engagement.
Hedda Gabler was written in 1890 by Henrik Johan Ibsen, a 19th Century Norwegian playwright referred to as the “founder of realism.” His plays, considering the timeframe they were written, were often viewed as scandalous, treading outside the accepted views of morals and family life.
In this production of Hedda Gabler, director Robin Frome straddles two eras cleverly placing the play in the early 1960’s. The strains of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” fill the air; you can almost detect a hint of patchouli yet another century shares the stage.
As Mr. Frome states in his Director’s Notes, the idea came to him while reading an autobiography of Grace Slick (Jefferson Airplane/Starship – iconic sixties artist). He was fascinated with her early life in Manhattan, attending a posh girl’s school and marrying a Manhattan socialite before escaping to San Francisco and becoming a major figure in the budding counterculture. Mr. Frome wanted Hedda to mirror this mentality – toting the line and marrying well. But, unfortunately Hedda is unable to escape her marriage and the stifling confines of her position without dire consequences.
Hedda Gabler Tesman is the beautiful daughter of General Gabler with a disturbing fondness for the two pistols he’s left in her care. Recently married to George Tesman, an aspiring writer and academe, they’ve just returned from an extended wedding trip. George spent most of it in libraries researching in hopes of an appointment to the university.
Clearly Hedda finds married life dull and boring with a husband more interested in books than a wife. As visitors descend on the newlyweds, including old friends and lovers, Hedda seizes on their turmoil with renewed vigor using their pain and discomfort to entertain herself and leaving the audience in the uneasy state of what might happen next. Only the Tesmans’ mutual friend and neighbor, Judge Brack, has the temerity to play Hedda at her own game in a sexually charged repartee that careens to shocking finale.
Dialogue is the action here and under Robin Frome’s keen direction, each character is peeled back revealing to the audience the unsettling psychological manipulaton at play. Although Hedda is the nucleus this is a collaborative effort with each actor weaving their part superbly into the whole.
If you closed your eyes to conjure up Hedda Gabler, the visage of Lauren Vesbit would appear. Ms. Vesbit has the physical beauty and stature for the role but more importantly the talent to give a remarkable performance. She is sultry, childish, pouty, destructive, dangerous and a bitch. Dancing in her living room waving her father’s pistols she makes you uncomfortable, you shift in your chair, but you can’t look away. She exudes ennui while at the same time projecting an almost fiendish playfulness with a touch of psychotic glee. Lauren Vesbit brings forth a “modern” Hedda despite the confines of her marriage, and a refreshing approach to a classic role. This is an award worthy performance.
Miles Everett is incredible as Judge Brack. This is a sinister character with a posh veneer and we have to spend some time with the Judge to start perceiving his capabilities. Mr. Everett does this so exceptionally well it would be easy to overlook the difficulty of this role and the time and talent that went into perfecting it. Sitting in the audience you have the dawning realization “this guy is creepy.” It’s brilliantly played. For me, the fine, golden moments in this show happen in the dialogue between Judge Brack and Hedda, a verbal dance ending with one partner backed into the corner.
George Tesman is a “simple soul.” Although he aspires to profound writing and a professorship, he seems more suited to arranging the works of others, toting books and notes around in a suitcase. He’s in awe of his wife but there is tension between them and we wonder if he loves her. He’s a man not prone to outrage even when Hedda is rude to his beloved Aunt Julia or destroys a treasured manuscript. Charles Roth does a stellar job of balancing this role with tenderness, vulnerability and an almost ethereal state of calm.
Marisa Caron as Thea Elvsted and Jim Dietter as Eilert Lovborg round out this incomparable cast beautifully. Thea Elvsted is nervous, anxious and afraid of Hedda. Ms. Caron’s portrayal of Thea’s anxiety is palpable, her angst reached me in the audience and my heart pounded.
Eilert Lovborg is a man with a past, torn between the achievements he’s made with Thea’s help and a life of debauchery when he knew Hedda some years ago. Jim Dietter delivers a magnetic and humorous performance of this man trying to hold on. Mr. Dietter is comfortable on the stage and he invests Eilert with such humanity we want him to succeed.
Although they are smaller roles, Stacey Snyder as Aunt Julia and Missy Slaymaker-Hanlon as Berta the maid, both give solid performances.
Robin Frome’s skill and experience as a director is clearly evident here on many levels. The dialogue is rich and revealing as the play progresses. In hindsight you realize if you saw the performances again you would detect a different nuance in each of the characters. Mr. Frome also designed the set that not only makes the best use of the black box the PAC is, but offers the audience the choice of viewing the play from both sides of the stage.
The PACBox Production of Hedda Gabler is drama at its finest, theater as it’s meant to be. The human condition and the social issues present in Hedda Gabler remain with us today. This is a unique theater experience that you do not want to miss.
Hedda Gabler will be performed at The PACBox next weekend only on Friday, March 3rd and Saturday, March 4th. Both performances are at 8:00 PM. Tickets are $15. The PACBox is located downstairs in the Connecticut Sports Arena at 32 Still River Drive, New Milford.
by Mary Hembree