Hedda Gabler (played here by Rachel Schoenbrun) – tellingly known by her maiden and not her married name – returns with her dorky academic husband George Tesman (Daniel Ferry) from their six-month honeymoon to the home he can’t afford, but which she asked for on a silly whim. She has married “below” herself – clearly not for love, but because of social pressure to avoid ending up an “old maid.”
Much about Hedda is only implied, perhaps because when this Norwegian play was first published, the public was scandalized. Hedda may be pregnant; she may have been raped by George’s rival, Elliot Lovborg; she may have been having an affair with Judge Brack, her husband’s best friend. The narrative is shaped by its human triangles.
She is, some say, the first really complex character available to stage actresses. She bounces from boredom to manipulation, from disdain to, well, disdain. Hedda is particularly nasty to other women, whether it is George’s adoring elderly aunt (especially well-played by Emily Code) or a vulnerable friend from her school days. Hedda says about herself, “I only possess the talent for one thing… Feeling dead.”
This Tufts production is beautifully staged, with a twist. It transposes this 1890 play to a mid-20th century setting, changing little about the impact of this evergreen drama. The era of the clothing and furniture is just distant enough to feel – especially to the students – sufficiently historical to showcase the difference in women’s options today, but close enough to have immediate resonance. It was my first visit to the terrific Marston Balch Arena Theater.
It is a credit to the reputation this production (I saw it late in its run - catch it tonight), that the house was full on a night of torrential rain and terrifying winds, when any sensible person would stay home watching the Olympics. I’m glad I ventured out and spent the evening with this troubled, snobby, dishonest but vulnerable character, showcased so powerfully in this exciting version at Tufts University.