Director Jennifer Tarver (left) and actor Cara Ricketts breathe new life into Hedda Gabler.
HEDDA GABLER by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Jon Robin Baitz, directed by Jennifer Tarver, with Cara Ricketts, Frank Cox-O'Connell, Christopher Morris, Hailey Gillis, Steve Cumyn, Kate Hennig and Aviva Armour-Ostroff. Presented by Necessary Angel/Canadian Stage at Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley). Opens Thursday (January 14) and runs to February 7, Tuesday-Thursday and Saturday 8 pm, Friday 7 pm, matinees Wednesday, Saturday-Sunday 1 pm. $24-$53. 416-368-3110, canadianstage.com. See listing.
Even though director Jennifer Tarver recognizes Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler as a first-class melodrama - "huge and psychologically accurate," as she phrases it - she also sees the work as an examination of "the architecture of society."
Tarver's take on the script looks beyond its title character, a woman with pent-up emotions trying to break free of societal restrictions. It's the only play she's directed a second time (the first was four years ago at Connecticut's Hartford Stage), because she wants to go deeper in analyzing its key themes.
"The image I have is of opening up the back of an old-fashioned stopwatch and looking at all the gears. There's a great mechanical intricacy in how the plot works," smiles Tarver, an impressively analytical and passionate artist.
"I also see the story developing like a comic-strip narrative, the scenes clearly marked and the action unfolding frame by frame."
We first meet Hedda when she returns from her lengthy honeymoon with the academic Tesman. Her main interest, though, is reconnecting with Eilert Lövborg, a former love interest who's been reformed by Thea Elvsted, who becomes Hedda's rival for Lövborg's attention. Then there's Brack, the cagey, manipulative judge who wants his own share of Hedda.
"Our production is set in the 1950s, a time when women and men were defined in specific ways and not allowed to break out of certain ways of behaving," says Cara Ricketts, who plays Hedda.
"When her father dies, she loses the life she had with him and seeks a new life that gives her some freedom. Though hoping that Tesman will give her something fresh, she soon discovers he can't; she keeps trying to find other ways to live.
"'Well' is a word that starts so many of her statements," continues Ricketts. "She keeps settling into new plans for her life, but discovers they don't work. The 'well' is a way of turning to another plan, often at the other end of the spectrum from where she currently stands."
Tarver has impressed on her cast the fact that all these characters represent different ways people function in terms of wilful blindness or tunnel vision.
"Perhaps the system demands our blindness to some things in order to function. Some figures live in a kind of oblivion, not seeing past what's right in front of them. Others who do see layers are haunted by them and cope by ignoring them; still others are able to navigate around those layers and adapt things to their own desires."
"Hedda lives in a tiny pressing place," adds Ricketts, "and that space gets smaller and smaller. There are voices in her head that tell her what she could or should have, but she doesn't easily act on them. For others like Lövborg, the action is easier."
"It's not by chance," says the director, "that the etymology of 'Gabler' is a fork in a road or river. Hedda constantly has to make choices but can never decide which way to go."