The sharp poignancy of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler comes through strongly in a flawed but sincere new production by the young company The Instigators. The tragic story of an unhappy young wife whose hopes of a glorious future of social ascendancy are being dashed before her eyes rings as true today as it did when Ibsen wrote it 125 years ago.
The staging’s main trouble is an inconsistency of tone. Under Fergus Scully’s sly direction Dana Saffran gives us a brash and very American Hedda who jibes well with Laird Reghenas’s dissolute, tattooed Eilert, and with the colloquialisms of the adaptation (“Me and her can never have a future.” “Wow!”). Their interpretation also makes the play’s humor more broad, less subtle, an acceptable choice in itself.
On the other hand, this Hedda’s larger-than-life sarcasm and petulance don’t mesh as well with Taylor Petracek’s milquetoasty and much more European George. It makes it awfully hard to believe that over months of honeymooning, he hasn’t seen through her facade of contentment, scholarly distractions or no.
Jenna Sander’s mesmerizingly overwrought Thea seems especially of another world. Or rather, she brings her own with her, devolving Hedda and George into mere characters whenever she’s on stage. She comes across as achingly real, thoroughly in the moment.
Some of the production’s supplemental elements are less than artful. Ineffective sound cues and unsubtle mid-scene lighting changes distract from the story and mood rather than reflecting them.
But the production mostly does right by the tale’s inexorable development, which centers on the unfolding of Hedda’s deadly frustration. Her coldness thaws as she and Eilert sit back-to-back, hot and cold at the same time, and reminisce: “You were just like me, starving for life.” We feel for George when he confesses to being “green with envy” of the intellectual brilliance in Eilert’s fateful new manuscript.
Judge Brack (Mark Couchot) doesn’t bring quite enough presence to make the menace the character presents fully believable. But Thea is again transfixing when Eilert casts her off despite her tireless help with the manuscript. Eilert himself captivates as he confesses to having lost it. And in the climactic scene when Hedda urges him to kill himself and “do it gloriously,” his despair is almost palpable. So is hers as she faces the realization that, at least in her limited reality, her own dreams of glory have died.
The Instigators are presenting Hedda Gabler in repertory with The Importance of Being Earnest, an equally foundational work of modern theater. Despite its rough edges, this production suggests a serious future for the young, evolving company. They are at The Secret Theatre in Long Island City, Queens, through October 16.