Drama buffs have been trying to solve the puzzle of "Hedda Gabler" since its debut in 1890.
One of Henrik Ibsen's most brilliant creations, Hedda is both a woman ahead of her time, a woman who would rather be dead than stifled, and a narcissist who puts her own needs ahead of everything else without a twinge of remorse. She is part heroine, part monster, and the role is among the most challenging parts an actress can tackle. Initially eviscerated by those scandalized by the play's sex and violence, Hedda's enigmatic slide into tragedy has sparked a debate that continues even into the 21st century.
Now Brian Friel has given us a new, if troubled, spin on the riddle of "Hedda."
The great Irish playwright, beloved for such works as "Dancing at Lughnasa" and "Translations," drizzles Ibsen's dark masterpiece with piquant notes of social critique. He also makes it painfully clear that Hedda cannot control her thoughts and impulses. She is tormented by her feverish brain to the point of madness.
While that's a credible take on the matter, it also has the consequence of robbing the drama of much of its mystery. As a result, this adaptation of "Hedda," which sets the play in 1937 Norway, confuses as much as it intrigues.
None of that detracts from Virginia Drake's passionate staging, which runs through April 21 at San Jose's City Lights Theater Company. While not all of the cast is up to the rigors of the text, this is still a well-plotted and lucid version of "Hedda" that eschews stuffiness for clarity. If the production lacks the primal sense of tragedy that "Hedda" demands, the fault largely lies with the weaknesses of Friel's adaptation.
The daughter of a famous general, Hedda (a charismatic Hayley Galbraith) lives in a time when her intelligence and wit are little more than party favors. She can't pursue a career or follow a dream. So she marries second-rate academic George Tesman (Robert Sean Campbell) out of desperation. Alas, upon arriving home from a dull honeymoon during which Tesman spent most of his time burrowing his head in an archive, she realizes that tedium is what the future will hold. She will be expected to arrange flowers, gossip about hats and produce heirs until she draws her last breath.
Of course Hedda is never as sympathetic as Ibsen's other revolutionary heroine, Nora from "A Doll's House." Hedda lashes out at the world that would rein her in. If she must draw blood from the innocent, like Tesman's sweet old aunt Juliana (a moving turn by Ruth E. Stein) and the redoubtable maid Bertha (Helena Clarkson), so be it.
But Friel feels compelled to modernize Hedda's coldness and cruelty. Despite the sensitivity of Galbraith's performance, which delights in both Hedda's venom and her guile, it seems clear here that Hedda suffers from a personality disorder. She's a blonde bombshell who can't bear to be adored. Feeling alienated from the mass of men, she finds daily life intolerable and the frailties of humanity unbearable.
Friel also goes to great lengths to make George seem like a prattling boob, chattering on about the embroidery on his bedroom slippers. Likewise, he makes Thea (Roneet Aliza Rahamim), Hedda's schoolmate, out to be a hysterical worrywart. Turning all of the supporting characters into caricatures only diminishes the arc of the tragedy as Hedda confronts her lost love, and George's rival, the brilliant Eilert Lovborg (Paul Henry).
Although it's great fun to see Hedda re-imagined as a hard-boiled '30s blonde, it's hard to see exactly how that serves the narrative. A woman in that decade just did not face the same repressive forces as one in the 1890s. Perhaps Ibsen does need to be updated, but having Judge Brack (a nicely wry Steve Lambert) spew Americanisms like "making whoopie" and "jumbo" isn't going to cut it.
Still, kudos to City Lights for daring to brave the wilds of "Hedda Gabler."
Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772.
By Brian Friel, adapted
from Henrik Ibsen
Through: April 21
Where: City Lights Theater Company, 529 S. Second St., San Jose
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (two intermissions)