Hedda Gabler would never be caught dead wearing a hair scrunchie. Even if Henrik Ibsen had written his seminal drama in 1989 instead of 1889, his fastidious, fashion-conscious protagonist would not hastily twist her hair back with a tacky, fabric-covered elastic.
Yet a scrunchie is just what Hedda wears in Scena Theatre’s production of Ibsen’s parlor tragedy, now set in 1938—-and in Olso, Norway, instead of Christiana. And just as the poor choice of hair accessory suggests, something feels off-base about every actor’s portrayal of these neurotic small-town Scandinavians.
Theatergoers who know the play will quickly realize, almost with a sense of guilt, that this production’s main problem is its casting. Ibsen specifies that Hedda is 29. By 19th century standards, she is no spring chicken. But there are still many references in the script to her youth and beauty. She marries George Tesman, a struggling academic, because her military general father has died and she needs a man to support her and her somewhat lavish tastes in horses and home furnishings.
Also, because she’s kind of a crazy bitch who has already pissed off pretty much every other guy in town.
The play opens with Hedda (Kerry Waters) and George (Lee Ordeman) returning from their six-month honeymoon/Ph.D. research trip. The central plot point (played up in this adaptation by Irish playwright Brian Friel) is, Is Hedda Pregnant, Or Isn’t She?
It’s a delicate matter. And so is this: Waters is way too old to play Hedda. Likewise Eric Lucas, as the brilliant but unstable Eilert Lovborg, isn’t sufficiently sexy to be the object of Hedda’s lust, and Jim Jorgensen, as the womanizing Judge Brack, isn’t virile enough to believably lust after Hedda.
Bare in mind also, that Ibsen populated this play with flawed characters who can easily annoy audiences if the actors are not carefully directed. And these actors are not. It’s as if the cast members each chose their own aesthetic: Waters plays Hedda with the self-conscious air and husky voice of 1930s film star. Ordeman, who has a strong movement background, animates himself like a slapstick comedian. Mary Suib, as the maid Bertha, seems straight of a ’60s sitcom. Only Rena Cherry Brown, as George’s doting Aunt Juliana, is convincingly living in this realist drama.
Maybe it’s possible for patrons unfamiliar with Hedda Gabler to walk in the H Street Playhouse and be captivated enough by the show’s interlocking love triangles to come out thinking their $35 was well spent. But if you know and love Ibsen, this is a production to skip.
The play runs to Thursday to Sunday to Jan. 29 at H Street Playhouse. $35. Photo by Mason Summers courtesy Scena Theatre.