Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is a fitting play for Princeton University. It takes place within the well-furnished walls of a bourgeois apartment, and is concerned with comfort, or more accurately with the horror of comfort. The titular character could be summarized neatly as a philosophical problem: how does a woman who has been dulled to pleasure find fulfillment within a society that holds pleasure as the highest good? Like many students on campus, Hedda enters the stage entirely provided for yet entirely hungry, perversely hungry. She has been pampered to savagery. The play opens with a piano at stage right, yet, shortly after her entrance, Hedda has the piano moved and replaced with her case of guns.
The genius of the play, which is being performed this weekend at the Lewis Center for the Arts at 185 Nassau, is that Gabler is not a philosophical problem, indeed it is not philosophical at all. The furnishings of the apartment have been rented on credit; every male that enters the apartment, with the possible exception (depending on how he is played) of Hedda’s husband Dr. Tesman, is dead set on sleeping with Hedda; the young Mrs. Elvsted enters the household as an entirely giving lover. The work cannot be an experiment, in other words, because it lacks a control. Hedda is often called “the female Hamlet,” yet her predicament is far less delineated than that of the Prince. The play feels at times like a symbolic representation of consciousness (Hedda remains within the apartment throughout, toying with the characters as they enter and exit), at times like social commentary (Dr. Tesman’s attempt at upward social mobility provides the impetus for the drama), and at certain points like an enthusiastic reaction against the socialization of the individual within a modernizing society. Yet the play is transcendent insofar as it is earnestly concerned with one woman, and the honesty of the work leaves one feeling, at the conclusion of the production, like a survivor of a blitzkrieg.
The effect is in large part dependent upon the performance, and as a placard outside the theater (in a rather risky move) declares, the role of Hedda Gabler is considered one of the most difficult of all time. This production is Irene Lucio’s senior thesis work, and she carries the show with an at times staggering resolve. She is at her best when she is listening to other characters, and in her attentive expression we can read the desperation, the wild ambition and lust for violence, that drives her towards destruction. Lucio has made of her Gabler an artist who has no earthly medium with which to express herself; in a strange interlude in which we watch the maid, Berta, change Hedda’s outfit, we can most clearly perceive a frustration that operates as a primal accusation against civility. In her moments of rage, Lucio wisely directs her energy against the objects of the apartment, claiming the entire stage as her domain. When the other characters appear, their positions (sitting on a chaise-lounge, leaning against a desk) are all conditioned by Hedda’s previous outbursts.
Hedda is adored by three men: her husband Dr. Tesman, the worldly Judge Brack and the suffering, life-sick and alcoholic Eiler Lovborg, played in that order by Tyler Crosby, Rob Grant and Dan Kublick. All of them give accomplished, yet very different performances, and there are moments at which the three seem to be in different plays. Tyler Crosby is by far the most comedic, and as a comedic actor he is very talented, using his repeated ejaculation of “amazing!” as a subtle indicator of his character’s inner state. It takes an intelligent actor to project the manifold variations of naivety. Rob Grant, on the other hand, could be a villain in a James Bond film. When he speaks, it is like the shifting of tectonic plates, and with slicked-back hair he walks with the sinister confidence of a lizard king. He uses his considerable stage presence to fine effect, and as a sexual force, he is suitably terrifying.
Dan Kublick has a great face for learned depression. With heavy eyes and a thin frame, he need only step on stage to convey the pain of a struggling academic. Yet, in Ibsen’s performance, depression is grounded in passion, and Kublick manages to convey this central element of the romantic Lovborg with a quiet intensity that is truly impressive. In a sense, Lovborg’s relationship with Hedda, which we only learn about late in the play, provides the tone for the entire production, and the ultimate success of Hedda Gabler should be shared between Kublick and Lucio.
Alex Ripp has the difficult task, in her role of Mrs. Elvsted, of playing the least interesting character in the show. A sort of wannabe-Gabler (I shudder at the thought), Mrs. Elvsted lacks Hedda’s strength of will, committing herself with reckless diligence to an intellectual romance with Lovborg. Mrs. Elvsted functions in the play, to my mind, as a more typical female character, against which Hedda’s peculiar predicament seems all the more revolutionary. Yet Ripp, a seasoned actress herself, does a very good job, and manages to grant Mrs. Elvsted a dignity that adds depth to the production. Actresses Heather May and Becca Foresman, both sophomores, are obviously competent and interesting performers whom I look forward to seeing much more of in the coming years.
Without giving anything away, I will add that the controversial conclusion of Hedda Gabler has been staged in various ways. This production ends on such a satisfying note that, when the house lights came up, I looked around the audience and saw a sea of shock. The show is the most successful I have seen at Princeton. It should not be missed.