Aside from Shakespeare's, few plays have had as much analysis lavished on them as "Hedda Gabler" and few characters have had more written about them than Hedda herself. Henrik Ibsen's updating of Medea is variously cited as a study in psychosis, a cry for women's liberation and an indictment of bourgeois mundaneness, among other theories.
But I think the real reason people have gone to see it over and over again for the past 100-plus years is that it's a superbly-crafted soap opera, with as many twists as three seasons of "Downton Abbey" but happily compressed into three hours.
I'd guess this wasn't the first "Hedda" for half the audience at the Cyrano's production on Saturday night. But for those wondering what happens, Hedda, fresh back from her honeymoon, is bored with her life -- or maybe disappointed and depressed by life in general. She particularly chafes at feeling powerless as she orders her maid to put more firewood in the stove; it's a first-world problem. When the straw of a long-ago amour floats by, she recklessly snatches at it -- but without the courage to close her grasp, with tragic results. Frivolity has consequences, as one of the characters explains.
Annia Wyndham played Hedda with little subtlety. She showed frustration and fury aplenty, but little that suggested she ever had a shred of sincerity. But from the moment she came on stage she exuded tension with fidgeting hand gestures and grim physicality. In more than a few cases, her mere presence was a scene by itself.
On the other hand, Jamie Nelson underplayed the role of Hedda's historian husband, Tesman. True, Hedda finds him uninspiring, a dull academic, but that doesn't mean he's uninteresting. Nelson made him more interesting toward the end, when the script has him acting to correct some of the wrong that has transpired, but we didn't see any of that potential in the first act.
Aaron Wiseman was consistently riveting in the beefy and conflicted role of Lovborg, Hedda's one-time love interest and her husband's possible competitor. He convincingly went from a confident, brilliant intellect to a wastrel wrung with despair. David Haynes nicely balanced the smarmy avuncularity and menace of Judge Brack, the manipulative blackmailer whose machinations are as important to the plot as Hedda's vacillations.
Jill Sowerwine was equally compelling as Mrs. Elvsted, Hedda's girlhood acquaintance who has become Lovborg's inspiration, collaborator and savior. It's a part that can easily be overlooked and, like Hedda's hubby, underplayed. But Sowerwine had us wondering about the woman who has bravely left her own husband and headed into the unknown.
The small part of Tesman's aunt was played by Gigi Lynch and the even smaller part of Berta the housekeeper was in the hands of Susan Metcalf, who made more of her brief lines than one would have expected.
The production, which marks the directorial debut of Tamar Shai, was well-paced and well worth seeing again. But it had some moments that could use polish. For example, the pivotal point where recovering alcoholic Lovborg takes his fatal glass of punch could have been much more crisp. This is a key development and his motivations needed to be clearly communicated. She made spare but wise use of props, often having a character who did not realize the importance of an item touch it or come close to it. The effect was that things like a photo album, gun case or wood stove took on the function of minor characters themselves.
Carrie Yanagawa's set, dominated by a portrait of Hedda's deceased father, was a simple late 19th-century drawing room with an oddly trapezoidal French door used to good dramatic effect.
When: 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 2
Where: Cyrano's Playhouse, 413 D Street
Tickets: $23-$25 at centertix.net