Theater is a spectator sport, and one of its prime enjoyments is the discovery of how a difficult role will be performed by different actors. Is Sophocles' Oedipus a sympathetic searcher after truth or a supercilious egotist stumbling from one debacle to the next? Is Strindberg's Miss Julie a kooky sadomasochist or a D. H. Lawrence-type heroine, unashamed of her sexuality and brave enough to break through class distinctions? One goes to the 10th production of Chekhov's Seagull not to find out what happens next — we have the movies for that — but to learn whether Trigorin is a genius or a hack, whether there's more to Madame Arkadina than vanity, and whether the aspiring actress in the role is genuinely gifted or just another wannabe. Again and again, great plays have their questions; and individual productions have their answers.
Which brings me to Tessie Hogan and her performance in Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. One approaches this show knowing that Hedda is one of the most complicated heroines in all of drama, a woman who's made a nonsensical marriage, who insists that she's a coward even while striking out viciously — and at times effectively — at the lives around her, and who finally commits suicide for reasons that are none too obvious. Is she simply too powerful for her time, a female dynamo in a world that refuses to let women be masterful? Are her claims of cowardice to be ignored, or do they begin to explain her marriage and her suicide? And why is she so sensitive where sex is concerned? Why does the thought of pregnancy enrage her? The lights come up on Tessie Hogan and we wait for this fine actress' take on a real conundrum.
And that take — as convincing as any other that I've witnessed — is that Hedda has long ago lost her sympathetic side and is now devoted to nothing but herself and her will to power. Hogan communicates this vision with great consistency, so that we cease after a while to look for her vulnerability and start to marvel at a character cut off from her humanity.
It would almost be correct to call Hogan's Hedda "masculine" if there were any agreement these days on what masculinity is. But the word is unavoidable: Hedda's embarrassment with sex and pregnancy makes the most sense if we see her as a man in a woman's body. Her marriage is to a gentleman who seems wifely in the old-fashioned sense, and her comfort with guns is just more evidence — Freudian or not — of her predilections. As for cowardice, Hogan's Hedda does indeed seem reluctant to break sexual taboos (or finds female sexuality itself too hateful to be indulged in beyond some absolute minimum), and she has a tendency to live vicariously, through others' confessions.
Finally, what Hogan's Hedda wants unreservedly is power, particularly the power to destroy life, to make the whole scandalous, humiliating enterprise come to shipwreck. And when life continues in spite of her — when the people around her strive to create order out of the mess she's made — it's just one more reason to leave them all behind. If the vessel is really that seaworthy — well, who needs it? Exit Hedda.
A plot reminder: Hedda Gabler is the beautiful daughter of a deceased general, and the recently married wife of scholar George Tesman. We soon learn that Hedda is not very tolerant of Tesman's values and is barely suppressing a lot of anger and frustration. We also learn about two men in Hedda's life: Judge Brack, who likes to make a "triangle" with married couples, and Eilert Lovborg, an old scholar/rival of Tesman's who once had a secret romance with Hedda. While carefully parrying Judge Brack's advances, Hedda tries to exercise power over Lovborg. She taunts him into drinking when he has resolved not to, encourages him to attend a party where his weaknesses will be tested and finally drives him to suicide after he's lost a precious manuscript. But in the course of this malevolence she makes a mistake, and suddenly Judge Brack has great power over her. The last thing we learn is how this angry, unpredictable woman manages to deal with her loss of freedom.
Of course, there's more to any production of Hedda than the acting of the lead, and I'm glad to report that most of the other cast members in this Banyan Theater production turn in excellent performances. Matt Bradford Sullivan is just fine as Tesman, making him likable, respectable and mild-mannered but no milquetoast. V Craig Heidenreich is an utterly fallible Lovborg, part romantic hero, part sad sack, and Crislyn V'Soske as the woman who loves Lovborg couldn't be better, displaying loads of devotion and unimpeachable sincerity. Only Howard Elfman as Judge Brack and Verna Safran as servant Berta fail to convince; Elfman's Brack is too colorless, and Safran's Berta never really seems comfortable with her lines. But Alexander Okun's two-room set is attractively luxurious (and the large portrait of General Gabler speaks volumes about Hedda), and David M. Covach's period costumes are always appropriate. Gil Lazier's direction is fluid, earning our attention by not calling attention to itself (with one exception: Hedda virtually embracing her father's portrait in the first seconds of the play).
But most of all, this production shines because of Hogan's utterly coherent (though not, of course, definitive) portrayal of Ibsen's heroine. This is a performance to remember, and to compare with other Heddas, in the past and future.
In the sport of theatergoing, that's a strong recommendation.
Difference of Opinion You may remember that in last week's column about the new contract between Florida State University and the Asolo Theatre Company, I said that future seasons at the Asolo (after 2003-2004) would be chosen by a scheduling committee including representatives of FSU along with Asolo Artistic Director Howard Millman. After that announcement appeared in the Planet, I received a call from Asolo Associate Artistic Director Bruce Rodgers, who told me that I was mistaken and that future seasons would be chosen by Howard Millman alone — as in past years. I then called FSU Provost Lawrence Abele, who had originally informed me about the scheduling committee — and he said that according to his interpretation, my article was correct: Future seasons are to be chosen by Howard Millman in consultation with the scheduling committee.
What does it all mean? FSU and Asolo have a contract; but they're not quite in agreement as to what it says.
Come next spring, when the 2004-2005 season is to be announced, this could get messy.
Performance Critic Mark E. Leib can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 305.