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Hedda Gabler

Mary-Louise Parker delivers an ultimately devastating portrayal of Ibsen's anti-heroine in Ian Rickson's revival. logo
Michael Cerveris and Mary-Louise Parker
in Hedda Gabler
(© Nigel Parry)
Henrik Ibsen's mercurial, destructive, and ultimately self-destructive Hedda Gabler is the modern-day actress' equivalent of Hamlet, sending out her siren call to stars far and wide. The latest luminary to answer is Mary-Louise Parker, whose bracing portrayal of this fascinating anti-heroine is the raison d'etre of the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Hedda Gabler, directed by Ian Rickson and featuring a new, contemporary translation by Christopher Shinn.

Hedda, the slightly haughty, proper General's daughter, has entered into an unhappy marriage with academic Jorgen Tesman (Michael Cerveris). Just back from her numbing six-month wedding trip, Hedda's already troubled existence quickly unravels further after the sudden reappearance of her ex-lover Eljert Lovborg (Paul Sparks) and her realization that she is (unhappily) carrying her husband's child.

Like with Hamlet, Hedda's actions -- not just toward Tesman and Lovborg, but also towards her childhood friend and Lovborg "soulmate" Thea (Ana Reeder), her protector, Judge Brack (Peter Stormare), and Tesman's kindly aunt (Helen Carey) -- cannot always be explained by conventional psychology or even a constant throughline. Still, most actresses ground their portrayal in at least one overriding personality trait. Kate Burton, who shone on Broadway in 2001, portrayed Hedda as the smartest person in the room; Cate Blanchett's Hedda, seen at BAM, was the ultimate bird in the gilded cage; and Elizabeth Marvel, who blazed through Ivo Van Hove's radical reinterpretation at New York Theatre Workshop, was a Hedda on the constant verge of physical and mental collapse.

Given much of her past work, one might expect Parker's Hedda to be the supreme neurotic. Not even close. Parker's Hedda instead emphasizes the character's overwhelming boredom with her life (and even herself) -- the result one suspects of both societal expectation and innate personality -- and it's primarily her lack of purpose that causes her to behave as badly as she does.

Indeed, the only thing to raise Hedda from her stupor for much of the first act is the chance to make a stinging remark. This waspishness, while certainly entertaining for the audience, raises questions why those around her so desire to remain in her company. She's certainly beautiful -- especially in Ann Roth's gorgeous gowns -- but often extremely unlikeable. Still, Parker's Hedda can be charming when she needs to be; and there's no doubt she comes fully alive -- rather uncharacteristically (and sexually) so towards the end of Act One -- when reconnecting with Lovborg. And even if some of her actions in Act Two are heinous, we can at least applaud her decisiveness. But one's enmity for Hedda turns to empathy at play's end, when the full futility of her life is exposed -- and Parker acts these scenes for all their worth with truly devastating results, for character and audience alike.

While many theatergoers (and critics) were enraptured by Rickson's recent production of The Seagull, some of the director's shortcomings are as noticeably on view here as they were there. Once again, his set designer Hildegard Bechtler's work is bland and somewhat shoddy-looking, and he periodically steers the proceedings into melodrama. (PJ Harvey's music, while wonderfully evocative, occasionally contributes to this effect.)

Moreover, he once again hasn't melded his cast into a seamless ensemble. The Swedish-born Stormare's halting English undercuts what could be an extremely effective interpretation of the predatory but not villainous Brack; Reeder (who also played Thea at NYTW) is a shade too formal and heightened for this production, and Carey, though wonderful, plays her role in a purely classical style that's at odds with her co-stars. (Lois Markle barely registers at the maid Berthe.)

Luckily, Parker's leading men are on the same proverbial page with her. Cerveris, while perhaps a slightly more virile looking Tesman than might be expected, perfectly captures the character's obliviousness to both the outside world and his wife's true needs. And in his two scenes, Sparks expertly balances Lovborg's loucheness and goodness, and his chemistry with Parker is undeniably explosive.

Even though most theatergoers know Hedda's fate, if one chooses to see the play again, it is in part to try to figure her out on one's own, but mostly, it's an opportunity to watch a committed actress wrestle with the character's demons, which Parker does unflinchingly.


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