"Hedda Gabler" is an old play (1890) on which it has never been possible to close the books. Is Ibsen's heroine truly a tragic figure, or is she simply a pretentious small-town neurotic with a vast capacity for making trouble?
Hedda certainly thinks of herself as tragic, and Robert Egan's staging for the Mark Taper Forum's Repertory Six company at the James A. Doolittle Theatre comes through for her in the great scene where she tears apart her lover's child and throws it into the fire.
In point of fact, the "child" is a manuscript that the lover has written--and he wasn't actually her lover. All that an onlooker would see is a woman consigning some papers to the stove.
Egan has Hedda (Kate Mulgrew) burn the manuscript center stage in a metal flower urn. The flames lick up, the lights go down, and Hedda becomes, in her imagination, a Gypsy priestess conducting some awful midnight revel.
We, too, can see her that way, for as long as the image lasts. Here Egan touches the myth that seems to run under "Hedda Gabler" without ever quite surfacing--the reason we can't dismiss Hedda as simply a provincial hysteric. She is a kind of Medea, or Medusa, at that, all the more lethal for being shut up in the house.
Egan tries another such visual coup at the end of the play, with Hedda's body posed in front of a white wall, emblazoned with a spume of dripping blood. But it falls flat, because by now this Hedda can't be seen as anything more than a foolish meddler who got in over her head. An interesting "Hedda Gabler" could be staged to that thesis, but this production's signals are all going the other way.
The problem is Mulgrew, as sturdy and as straightforward an actress as her name. She was born to play St. Joan, Major Barbara, Antigone or anyone Irish. Smoky, devious, complicated people like Hedda are not her line. That's not to say that she fails to cut a fine figure on the stage or fails to make us listen to her, but her clarity belies Hedda's kinks.
This Hedda looks too sensible to be Hedda. While presenting herself as a creature who doesn't dare to taste life, though seething to do so, this Hedda seems quite at home in her skin and perfectly able to give any man--let alone woman--as good as she gets.
There's no torment here. This Hedda dabbles in other people's lives for amusement, and her only problem is that she's not as good at it as she thinks--certainly no match for the cynical Judge Brack (Dakin Matthews). Having lost her match with him, it's hard to see her committing suicide. She'd probably laugh and wait for the next round.
Mulgrew would make a terrific straightforward rapscallion (Regina in "The Little Foxes"), but she doesn't convince as someone drowning in a sea of half-suppressed, half-wished-for desires. She doesn't make us feel Hedda's shadows--strange, in a production so full of them. (Martin Aronstein did the lighting.)
The surrounding company is capable. Michael Gross makes Hedda's wimp of a husband, Tesman, less of a caricature than usual: Within his narrow limits, this is a capable person. Matthews is superb as Judge Brack, who realizes that what Hedda thinks is tragedy is rightly seen as comedy--of which he intends to take full advantage.
Linda Purl rushes a bit as Mrs. Elvsted, who has the very bad luck to turn to Hedda for help with a problem. George Deloy suffices as the object of both their affections, Eilert Lovborg, although he allows Lovborg to slip back into his bad old habits too quickly in the drawing room--we should have time to feel that drink take effect.
Diana Douglas as Tesman's aunt establishes both her kindness and her ruthlessness when it comes to protecting her family: a real adversary for Hedda, who doesn't have that kind of concentration. Julianna McCarthy is the biddable maid, her bad will toward the family established in a silent scene change.
Another of Egan's ideas is the notion that Hedda sees her drawing room as a stage and her life as a play. David Jenkins gives her the proper drawing room (note the red velvet curtain drawn over the garden door at dusk) and Robert Blackman cinches her into the proper form-fitting gowns. But it is a play that only occasionally moves us to care.
"Hedda Gabler" runs in repertory with Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing" through July 13, (213) 410-1062.
'HEDDA GABLER' Henrik Ibsen's play, presented by the Mark Taper Forum's Rep Six company at the James A. Doolittle Theatre. Adapted by Christopher Hampton. Director Robert Egan. Set David Jenkins. Costumes Robert Blackman. Lighting Martin Aronstein. Original music and sound Daniel Birnbaum. Production coordinator Frank Bayer. Production stage manager Jonathan Barlow Lee. Stage managers James T. McDermott and Arlene Grayson. With Kate Mulgrew, Diana Douglas, Julianna McCarthy, Michael Gross, Linda Purl, Dakin Matthews, George Deloy. Plays in repertory with Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing" through July 13. 1615 N. Vine St. (213) 410-1062.