Madeleine Potter’s ‘Hedda’ Drenched in Languid Malaise

By Selby Frame
Arts Reporter, Kennebec Journal

If you do it with great style, there is almost nothing that won’t elicit the admiration of your fellow man. Or woman.

We are simple creatures, after all, eager to be astonished, desperate for heroes, hopeful that others are actually more confident than we know ourselves to be.

The theatre is full of such large people, and one of the most notorious is Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler,” arguably one of the most darkly flamboyant women to be written in her era.

Portland Stage Company has mounted a production of”Hedda” that honors the wrenched panache of this tragic heroine, while striving to meet the more complex undertones of the play.

Hedda is a haughty, beautiful aristocrat who has just returned from a honeymoon with her bookish, earnest husband, Tesman. She quickly finds herself caught in the private threads of the past as she languishes in a life that is far below her gifts.

She begins to toy with the lives of those around her–notably, Eilbert Lovborg, her past lover, and Thea Elvsted, the woman who now claims him. She tortures them by robbing them of their belief in the beauty of their own lives, leading Lovborg to his death and Thea to her ruin. But as she tests her power over others, she ultimately falls victim to her own schemes gone awry.

Madeleine Potter’s Hedda is drenched in languid malaise. Her opening scenes, as she drifts through the parlor slinging double entendres at her unsuspecting husband, play with delightful humor. She is a noir Noel Coward, statuesque without being stiff, a splendid, witty Hedda whose breeding and elan assume a sort of character of their own.

John Greisemer’s Tesman is close to perfect — a bumbling, good-natured scholar who hasn’t a clue about the woman he has married. To Tesman, Hedda is a catch, a goddess. Too simple and self-absorbed to truly understand her, he admires her for all the wrong reasons.

The question, always, is: What drives Hedda? Why has she settled for a play-acted marriage so beneath her. Why has she fled the man she really loved? Why doesn’t she do something to change her circumstances?

When her friend, Judge Brack (Michael Santo) puts these questions to her, Hedda answers: “I had danced myself out. My time had passed.” A characteristically facile answer, which we know is not quite the truth.

“Hedda Gabler,” above all, is a study in the public vs. the private self. Although everyone admires Hedda’s breeding, no one — save Judge Brock — comprehends the full range of her intelligence. Trapped in a world in which she can have no real effect, Hedda’s intelligence begins to go inward, eating her soul.

Although Potter catches the brilliance of Hedda’s public self, she comes up short on the the private fears and anger that fuel the play to its climax. And her rage, when it finally is expressed, comes out as a thin, brittle wail.

Director Roberta Levitow has staged a highly stylish production, although a somewhat unpaced one. While the scenes work individually, they don’t build toward the play’s explosive ending.

Tom Broecker’s costumes are a sumptuous, yet confusing, mix of styles suggesting everything from Norwegian peasantry to Erte chic. Rosario Provenza has designed an inflamed, red set that is at once comforting and claustrophobic, with French doors that open to the “void,” a foggy, inscrutable backdrop upon which dead leaves blow. It is the perfect visual metaphor.