She is one of the most enigmatic and psychologically intriguing heroines to ever dominate and propel a major work of dramatic literature. To see Mary-Louise Parker, one of the most idiosyncratic and dramatically unpredictable actors, take charge and expose both Hedda Gabler’s interior life and exterior persona is quite a treat as well as a tribute to her ability to astonish us (as if she doesn’t always do that for good or bad).
Henrik Ibsen’s 1890 classic has both attracted and confounded many of the 20th century’s most daring actresses. To see the extraordinarily beautiful Parker stalk the stage, dominate her surroundings and devour all those around her might seem to be the typical approach to Hedda. But be aware that Parker is taking a dangerous route through the role. She does the almost unimaginable by keeping the culpable world in tow at the same time she is allowing us to see the psychological machinery that makes her tick. It could be construed as indicating motivation were it not done with a technique of impeccable artistry and calculated design. The role asks of those who dare to take the challenge to not only be a hard-hearted, devious, deceitful, and even bloodthirsty manipulator, but also a woman of great strength, the daughter of the respected and socially prominent General Gabler, desperately trying to gain control of her destiny.
In this new adaptation by Christopher Shinn and directed by Ian Rickson, Parker creates a Hedda that is not like anything you have seen before. She is restless and riveting, but more to the point she is recklessly and openly deliberate in dealing with her fears. That Hedda is self-centered may be a given, but it is in her neurotic amusement of what she is capable of that Parker stands apart from the others. That she looks stunning in the three gowns designed for her by Ann Roth is hardly the reason you can’t keep your eyes off of her.
Yes, there are many ways to interpret the role. But to Parker’s credit, we judge Hedda not as evil or deranged but as a bored, aristocratic woman with a ferocious need to test and challenge the suffocating Victorian society in which she lives. Energized and revitalized by Shinn’s adaptation (from a literal translation by Anne-Charlotte Harvey) our ears are immediately set at ease with the clear and unfussy syntax. I do not have the new text, but based on the older version I do have, I can say that Ibsen’s ironies and subtleties have not been diminished or lost.
“Hedda Gabler” also benefits from Ian Rickson’s staging, conspicuous for his adoration and consideration of the play’s centerpiece. Our very first image of Hedda awakening sensually on a sofa in the ante-room and stretching her limbs beneath a large clouded mirror is a stunner, but only the first of a series of postures and attitudes that will define perhaps the most willful Hedda of them all.
Rickson’s approach to Hedda is more devilishly fun than was his direction of the recently closed “The Seagull.” Credit Rickson with the way Hedda’s fits of skittishness send her circling the room like a caged tigress, and in the cunningly condescending manner she feigns her affection for Jorgon Tesman (Michael Cerveris), her studious and blindly adoring husband. With his bald head becoming his signature, as well as his unfailing ability to reside inventively with the emotional core of a character, the remarkable Cerveris brilliantly makes Jorgon’s clueless nature its own reward. His feelings are not lost on his devoted Aunt Julian (Helen Carey), whose genuine affection for her nephew is seen as real and true.
Having just returned fresh from their honeymoon, Hedda is already conflicted by the reasons she chose Tesman over the charismatic, unstable, and impetuous genius Ejlert Lovborg (Paul Sparks). Bored by the thought of living a dutiful provincial life, and without any hope of finding a release for her frustrations, she takes to pulling the strings of others around her. Equally impressive is Ana Reeder (repeating the role she played in the Van Hove production) as the gullible Mrs. Thea Elvsted. Reeder is quite wonderful as the less mischievous schemer who, in her own disarming way, provokes the jealous Hedda into action and to take revenge after Thea unwittingly confides to Hedda that she has left her husband and is in love with Lovborg, Hedda’s former lover.
Although Hedda’s plan succeeds, it also backfires when she finds that it has brought Tesman and Thea together and that she has come under the power of the clever and unctuously lecherous Judge Brack (Peter Stormare). I wish I could say that everyone in the cast has found successful ways to cope with the classicism of the text and the contemporary approach to their characters. While the action revolves around Parker, as the intelligent woman who spins out of control in a series of foolish maneuvers, not the least of which has her re-arranging furniture and opening and closing the drapes, the others, as pawns, are also doing their best making lesser impressions.
Sparks, who has earned his award-worthy and winning performances in a number of Off Broadway plays, is in over his head as Ejlert and has not yet come near to mastering the text for meaning. Parker carries him as best as she can, especially in the passionate but aborted, love-making scene. This is Spark’s best moment. It is also an eye opener as Hedda lifts up her skirt and Lovborg wastes no time giving his hand the sense of direction he otherwise failed to have.
I don’t know what to make of Stormare’s almost cryptic performance as the Judge Brack. But why an actor who studied with Ingmar Berman in his own native land couldn’t convince us that he knew what he was saying or even pretend to belong in the play is a puzzle. There is the scene in which Hedda playfully fires two shots at Brack. She misses. Drat. Helen Carey was more at home, as Berte, the Tesman’s maid.
A touch of modernism is moodily affixed to the play with PJ Harvey’s music, a touch that adds to our interest in the vast and largely colorless decor of the Tesman house, created by Hildegard Bechtler and superbly lighted by Natasha Katz. Despite my objections, Parker is a Hedda who isn’t like any you have seen before. **
“Hedda Gabler,” through Sunday, March 29, Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theater, $66.50 to $111.50. 212-719-1300.