Last season, Long Wharf Theater artistic director Doug Hughes paid a highly successful visit to the late Victorian era with his first-class staging of Oscar Wilde’s 1895 “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Now he’s returned to the period as director and adapter of Ibsen’s 1890 “Hedda Gabler.” The results are infinitely less salubrious. Neither Hughes nor his cast have taken the measure of this admittedly difficult play. Martha Plimpton, in particular, is way out of her depth in the complex title role.
There are myriad ways to play Hedda. Some have been exotic and/or neurotic. Some have hewed more closely to the icy, refined and basically conventional general’s daughter Ibsen envisioned. Plimpton just gives us a spoiled brat. Rather than a chillingly self-centered and terminally bored woman, her Hedda simply comes across as tiresomely petulant. The actress doesn’t succeed at projecting Hedda’s deeply peculiar thought processes, and her body language is also too modern for such a well-bred Victorian woman.
Plimpton is a very small-scale Hedda indeed, and the play withers accordingly, though its precedent-shattering psychological power is still evident. Beth Dixon gives the most effective performance as Aunt Juliana, getting the play off to a brisk start with her vigorously projected opening scene.
Hughes’ new English-language adaptation is certainly less stilted than the original Edmund Gosse translation of 1891. Witness the opening line: “Upon my word, I don’t believe they are stirring yet!” (Gosse) as opposed to “I can’t believe it, they’re still in bed!” (Hughes). Hughes has also avoided any anachronistic modernisms, even if his dialogue often seems flat and lacking in period or personal resonance.
Hughes begins his production oddly, with Hedda, accompanied by a cacophony of whispering voices, pacing wildly across the full width of the stage like a caged bird before racing offstage to make way for the opening scene. But the first line states that Hedda and her husband are still in bed, which makes the preceding action just silly.
Much of Hughes’ physical staging is clumsy, too, and, frankly, the play itself sits uncomfortably on the open stage of the LWT’s Stage II. Neil Patel’s set, with its distressed off-white walls for its main room and blood-red walls for outer rooms, also detracts from the play, its spare emptiness quite the reverse of what is called for, a cluttered, claustrophobic Victoriana.
There’s no piano, no heating stove or fireplace, and no thick carpets on the floor, as Ibsen requested, the latter resulting in a lot of noisy footfalls whenever anyone walks across the stage.
The lack of a stove or fireplace is doubly diminishing because it all but makes a mockery of the vital scene in which Hedda tears up and burns Lovborg’s manuscript. Plimpton has to shove it down a heating duct in the middle of the floor. Hughes also stages Hedda’s suicide behind a semi-transparent curtain at the rear of the drawing room, allowing the audience to actually see her shoot herself. All of the jolting drama is this drained out of that highly questionable act.
Catherine Zuber has done a suitably restrained job of costuming Ibsen’s Victorian characters, clothing Hedda first in white, then burgundy, finally black. As the insidious Judge Brack, it looks as though Richard Poe has been requested to powder and possibly even rouge his face and dye his hair jet black. The results may be historically accurate but seem overdone at such close range to the audience.
“Hedda Gabler” is not a play that benefits from being performed in the audience’s lap, and its multiple facets are barely explored in this disappointing Long Wharf Theater production.