Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Capital Stage mounts rare production of Ibsen’s ‘Hedda Gabler’

Stephanie Gularte and Jonathan Rhys Williams star in "Hedda Gabler" at the Capital State through June 16. Capital Stage/Courtesy photo

Check it out

What: “Hedda Gabler”

Where: Capital Stage, 2215 J St., Sacramento

When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through June 16

Tickets: $24-$35 general

Info: 916-995-5454 or

Ordinarily, Sacramento’s Capital Stage specializes in contemporary plays, usually with contemporary settings.

But for the next few weeks, the company is presenting its own adaptation of the Henrik Ibsen classic “Hedda Gabler” — a drama that shocked audiences in the 1890s with its frank depiction of a loveless marriage and scandalous manipulative behavior.

The audience discomfort that initially greeted the play’s premiere soon gave way to fascination, as ambitious actresses recognized the title role as an opportunity for a tour de force, and other playwrights (Chekhov, O’Neill, etc.) blazed their own trails through the new dramatic territory that Ibsen had opened.

“Hedda” continues to be staged, because the complexity of the characters — everybody’s got a personal agenda, with a shady aspect of some sort — still rings true after 120 years. Human nature hasn’t really changed. But “Hedda” typically is produced in bigger cities, and at major summer festivals. It’s been years since anybody’s staged the in Sacramento, and probably close to four decades since there’s been a professional production. So in a very real sense, this is a classic that many local ticket-buyers are experiencing for the first time.

(Capital Stage artistic director Stephanie Gularte, who plays “Hedda” in this production, mentioned during a recent post-performance discussion with the audience that the play’s ending caught a significant percentage of the opening night audience by surprise.)

“Hedda” continues to fascinate us because the play operates at so many different levels. At one level, it’s about a remarkably intelligent and capable woman, recently married, who’s bored to tears with her constrictive new role as a dutiful wife. At the same time, Hedda is the pampered daughter of a wealthy man, who clearly expects her new husband to maintain her in the style to which she is accustomed (even though he has to borrow lots of money to do so). And Hedda has a penchant for saying (or doing) impulsive, unpredictable things, which tend to push other people’s buttons.

Hedda’s pulse does not race when she thinks of her bookish, academically inclined spouse Tesman (who spends a lot of time in libraries, working on a book about medieval agriculture). About the best thing she can say for him is that he’s “respectable” and “not entirely ridiculous.”

Naturally, the apple cart of life gets upset when Hedda’s former flame Lovborg turns up — he’s a wildly erratic academic, whose penchant for drink and personal excess has left him with a checkered past; Lovborg’s dried out and written a brilliant book in a last-ditch effort to regain respectability. (You can see how this play wouldn’t sit well with 1890s audiences, who preferred to see more nobility in their tragic characters.)

This Capital Stage adaptation was largely scripted by Gularte, who doesn’t mess with Ibsen’s story, but opts for more direct — and less florid — language than is found in some of the older English translations. (I can’t speak for Ibsen’s original script, written in Norwegian.)

Gularte is pretty much ideally suited to play Hedda, and her steely performance is naturally the centerpiece of the show. But there are also good performances by Jonathan Rhys Williams as the temptation-plagued Lovborg, and longtime Davis resident Peter Mohrmann as Judge Brack, who comes on like a genial friend, but eventually shows a sinister side.

Director Janis Stevens, who’s not one to shy away from looking deeply and directly into the abyss when it comes to staging this kind of drama, handles things with clarity and degree of restraint, bringing out a degree of dark irony in the dialog without ever blunting the inherent power of Ibsen’s story.

All in all, it’s a remarkable and very professional mounting of a challenging play that wears its reputation as a classic very well — the kind of thing you’ve generally had to drive to the Bay Area to see during the past 15 years. If serious drama is your cup of tea, you don’t want to miss this one.


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