Young and Needy

Oh, we could sit around and analyze Hedda Gabler, and talk about how amazing this grand old play is but how hard it is to do properly, with everybody involved sharing a dream and a purpose and working together.

But let’s not.

First, that’s too much like English class, and we are here to discuss a performance, not a script.

Second, that’s too much like the play—a bunch of characters gamely trying to get along in the same town even though they all have separate selfish motives that could, if not restrained, knock this community to the ground like a row of teetering upstanding dominoes.

Funny play, Hedda Gabler. It’s bracingly modern and quaintly old-fashioned at the same time. Director Katherine McGerr proves this in a bracing and impetuous, yet often stagy and old-fashioned production that mixes modernism and decorum. The Yale School of Drama production is at the University Theater on York Street through Friday night.

Does it work? Yes, it works. It’s moving and and involving and alive. The actors may not be the ages of the characters they’re playing, but they seem to understand them.

The show also works at a distance, like a refined modern-art museum piece. The set looks like a gallery. The main playing area is set back in the middle of the stage; the front of the stage, where no one steps, is a stretch of colorful fallen leaves. The set is literally confining, with curtains and picture windows and a low ceiling. This leads to some intriguing natural-light effects from floor lamps and a fireplace (both of which figure in the play’s plot).

The drama is so removed from us that it might as well be on television. It takes a special vitality from the actors, and the innate benefits of such a great and stirring script, to make this set-back staging work.

It’s Ibsen’s great gift as a writer that he could write a play whose characters only got deeper with time. Hedda Gabler is an ever-timely drama about settling down and wondering what one might be missing out on. It’s got dupicity, revenge, scornfulness, jealously, hidden motives, sexism, anguish, suicidal depression and genius.

Ibsen may have written his men as social stereotypes—the gentle academic (Daniel Reece as Jorgen, all peppy and bright-eyed in a green sweater vest), the powerful commissioner (Mitchell Winter, worldly and mysterious) and the radical firebrand philosopher (Mamoudou Athie, intoxicatingly impetuous; you can feel why the ladies fall for him) — but they’re full-bodied ones. The Yale School of Drama actors in director Katherine McGerr’s well modulated production nail these types, and also find added nuance and detail and familiarity that justifies the director and designers’ decision to set the play in modern times. The Tessmans’ home is done up in a mix of hand-me-down antiques and IKEA necessities. Hedda and Jorgen’s newfound married life is seen as a jumble of obligations, responsibilities and delayed dreams, a situation well known to the 20somethings which fill this cast (and much of this show’s audience).

The translation is by Paul Walsh, who did it a few years before he began teaching at the School of Drama. It’s about as good as you can get, making the dialogue natural and contemporary without messing with either the austerity or the class-based themes of the original. A lot of the clunkiness and overwrought reactions, frankly, come from Ibsen’s own dramatic contrivances rather than his translators.

This production is not in any way an update. But any version of this play rendered in the past 30 years or so inevitably levels the playing field. Hedda, the newlywed who continues to flirt with any man in the vicinity (played here with withering glares and imperious postures by Ashton Heyl) is seen as headstrong and impulsive, not so much as a victim or a manipulator. Her friend Thea, a sweet and virtuous young woman who inspires men (including Hedda’s former suitor) to ennoble themselves (rather than embarrass themselves, as Hedda makes them), is shown to be not so much of a pushover as she may have appeared in the play’s earliest productions. The men are not outright cads, or criminally oblivious to the needs of their spouses.

There’s the expected bad behavior, gross neediness and depressive stupors in McGerr’s production of this very well known play, but also some much welcome humor and entertaining melodrama. The use of a fireplace is foreshadowed by having Commissioner Brack idly swinging an iron poker as if it were a golf club. There’s a put-upon maid (played by Ariana Venturi) who’s constantly rolling her eyes at Hedda’s indomitable decrees. There’s live piano music played on a gorgeous rare A.M. Hume piano made in the early 1900s; the instrument is for sale by Brenton Evans Pianos on State Street, which lent it to the School of Drama for this production.

New Haven’s seen many Hedda Gablers. Dianne Wiest played the role at Long Wharf in 1981. That theater did the play again in its smaller Stage II space nearly 20 years later, starring Martha Plimpton. That 2000 production featured a new translation by director Doug Hughes (also the Long Wharf’s artistic director at the time). The Hughes translation was used again in town the last time the Yale School of Drama did Hedda Gabler, in 2005, directed by Christopher Carter Sanderson and starring Christianna Nelson. Some have been overtly violent. Some have been more about environment than emotion. All have striven to make sure that this play — a groundbreaking drama when it was first done over 120 years ago, when Ibsen was pioneering a new Naturalism in drama — is not dismissed as a clunky old classic

Doing Hedda Gabler nowadays means rethinking the character’s motives, excusing some egregious behavior, finding the modern equivalent of a stultifying environment, and allowing for some bad-taste moments and a shocking climax.

Good for anybody who tries to tame this wily century-old psychological social satire. As the play says, “Finally. Somebody has done something.”

Hedda Gabler plays through Feb. 7, nightly at 8 p.m., at the Yale University Theater (222 York St.). Tickets are $20, $10 for students.

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