Thug Wife: Hedda?s a master of emotional violence.
Thug Wife: Hedda?s a master of emotional violence.

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Quick, tell me who you are.

Your mother’s son, a daddy’s girl? Sunday’s child, a daughter of Da Nang, survivor of a bitter divorce, or perhaps of that September morning at the Pentagon?

Two plays, one classic and one decidedly contemporary, ask how our identities get constructed, and they suggest—comically, dramatically, sometimes melodramatically—that one answer might be “like pearls.” We layer ourselves, these plays say, around the invasions, the irritations, the threats in our lives. Whether the result has any luster or not, or whether it offers us any lasting protection—well, that depends on which play we’re talking about.

In Hedda Gabler, not so much. The title character’s a dazzling woman, granted, and a strong one; she’s an aristocrat, brought up by a powerful father to ride hard and shoot straight. She’s married now, restlessly, to a bourgeois academic, but she’s still so much defined by her upbringing, so much a stranger in her husband’s world, that one feminist-leaning adaptation from the 1990s actually took a cue from the text and retitled the play General Gabler’s Daughter.

That same phrase still gets used, admiringly, to describe Hedda in the early scenes of the version being staged at the Washington Shakespeare Company, but the concerns of class and restrictive social norms, the high-minded aesthetic notions and the progressive outrage at moribund, sexist moralities that Ibsen embedded to help make sense of Hedda’s spiraling neurosis seem mostly to have been stripped away. Maybe it’s Andrew Upton’s fractured take on the text, all overlapping Mamet-like fragments and momentous Pinterish pauses; it seems designed to heighten the psychodrama, to emphasize Hedda’s perilous state of mind each time reality upsets her controlling gambits, but somehow, at least in Christopher Henley’s unhappily uneven rendering at the Clark Street Playhouse, Upton’s version reduces the story to a mean, unattractive thing that’s mostly about money and gossip.

And the Hedda at the center of it will be all too recognizable to modern audiences. She’s a shallow, status-conscious harridan, a Manhattan scenester banished to a Midwestern McMansion, bored with the conversation and yet still obsessed with what the neighbors might think. Sure, Heather Haney’s keen, alert Hedda has a certain fire—and some heat, too, when Adam Jonas Segaller’s Ejlert Lovborg is in the room with her. (The two actors are sensational together, intensely and exhilaratingly aware of each other.)

But Upton leaves the character little real spirit to be stifled in those dull, dull nights with her earnest but uninspiring husband (the convincingly callow Daniel Eichner); it’s not an expansive, agile mind that’s missing its old connection to the electrifying Lovborg, now that he’s off the sauce and showing some of his old brilliance, but a calculating, cynical, selfish one.

And after those calculations go awry and a better player uses those rigid social realities to corner her in her own trap, it’s not a wild, defiant creature who chooses her own exit but a resentful, petulant one, aware of no tragedy greater than the fact that she’s been outclassed. Hedda Gabler has always been hard to admire, with her haughty little cruelties and her convoluted internal logics and her vacillating, almost animal desires, but usually there’s at least a fierceness to her, an outsize and almost noble something that inspires wonder, as at a force of nature. Upton’s version is an ignoble little woman, hard to bear at all, much less admire, even grudgingly—and the only wonder is that any of the men in her life could ever imagine she could love anyone but herself.