Studio Theatre’s dedication to contemporary theater may make Hedda Gabler, Henrik Ibsen’s late 19th-century portrait of a kept woman clawing at the claustrophobic walls of a deeply unsatisfying marriage, seem an odd choice. The play surely shocked audiences in its 1891 debut, delving into the secret psychological machinations of a then-new category of dramatic character—the freedom-seeking wife who sates boredom by maliciously controlling a man’s destiny—but the premise now feels creaky against today’s backdrop of women’s empowerment and authority.
Thankfully, Mark O’Rowe’s unfussy adaptation, along with a few powerful performances, make this Hedda’s fast-moving train ride toward self-destruction the kind of spectacle from which it’s mostly impossible to look away.
Julia Coffey’s frantic eponymous turn is riveting from the moment she steps on stage, her sharp, pale frame draped in gauzy beige pajamas. She’s the perfect picture of modern-day privileged ennui, padding around in bare feet in a post-honeymoon funk, running a willowy hand through bedraggled blond hair, and flinging casual insults at Jorge Tesman (Avery Clark), her new groom for whom she has little love, and his doting aunt Julle (Kimberly Schraf), whose passive aggressive prying about the couple’s childbearing plans is the first of many triggers to send Hedda spiraling. Coffey deftly sustains an anxious precision to her Hedda throughout all four acts, propelling the character along a carefully crafted trajectory toward an ever-dwindling set of options born of brutal boredom and a self-lacerating line of what-could-have-been thinking. Coffey brings an equal sense of danger to Hedda’s scenes of cavalier pistol waving (literally) as she does to her relentless rounds of manipulative interrogation designed to undo her “loved” ones.
As Thea Elvsted, Kimiye Corwin electrifies the stage in a different but no less impactful manner than Coffey, her performance a slowly unraveling yarn of angst pitched effectively against Coffey’s high-octane Hedda. The production shines brightest in scenes featuring Coffey and Corwin. They share a scene in the first act: Thea comes searching for Ejlert Lovborg (Shane Kenyon), the bad-boy writer with a reputation for brilliance, philandering, and alcoholism, with whom Hedda has a past and with whom Thea, herself in a loveless marriage, hopes to have a future. It’s a delicious cat-and-mouse play between the two women. Both actresses have exquisite timing and a sense of urgent pacing; director Matt Torney expertly mines this fierce chemistry.
It’s unfortunate, then, that Kenyon’s Lovborg lacks the same energy that Coffey and Corwin bring to the taut proceedings. An arresting Lovborg is essential to the play’s dramatic effect; he’s the great lover and celebrated writer who threatens to upend not only Hedda’s and Thea’s lives but also the livelihood of Tesman, whose pending professorship is Lovborg’s for the taking. Kenyon simply doesn’t have the auspicious presence to make Lovborg appear worthy of all the fuss, nor does he project the sense of recklessness that the addiction-prone, rule-breaking character is meant to possess.
O’Rowe leaves the original text mostly intact, spinning into it more suggestions of sexual violence than are present in Ibsen’s original. It’s an effective rendering that’s given additional modern touches via Luciana Stecconi’s austere, bright set, (which in the original text is described as darkly colored and carpeted), and Murell Horton’s simple, chic costumes.
The play runs to June 19.1501 14th St. NW. $20–$86.(202) 332-3300. studiotheatre.org.