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Theater Review:

"HEDDA GABLER" at Steppenwolf Theatre

With a combination of diabolical glee and fidgety frustration, Henrik Ibsen’s antagonistic protagonist, "Hedda Gabler," admits her one talent "for boring myself to death." Yet Martha Plimpton’s portrayal of this 19th century woman struggling with her darker impulses is electrifying, desperate and ravenous all at the same time. And her "boredom" is not so much the result of her stifling middle-class existence as the wife of the meek and oblivious scholar, George Tesman, as it is the lack of outlets for her boundless passions.

In Steppenwolf Theatre’s semi-abstracted staging of Ibsen’s most controversial masterpiece, director-adapter Doug Hughes makes no excuses for Hedda’s vile behavior. And, at first, this is quite a startling approach. Plimpton, clad in a rumpled white-linen dressing gown, enters by running up the aisle and through doors leading into plush-red rooms, which seem to further trap her. There is no escape for this woman tired of playing life’s unspoken power games – even though, for once in her life, she wants power over someone else.

Yet Hughes’ willingness to present Hedda with all her imperfections sets this production apart from more reverential ones, which try to turn this deeply disturbed (albeit no less human) woman into a martyr for female repression. Interestingly, Hedda is not so sternly kept in her place by Tesman. In fact, he has very little power over his wife who married him only for the possibility of a respectable position in society. She openly taunts his devoted Aunt Juliana and refuses to subscribe to familial obligations.

Some audiences may find it troubling to watch a "heroine" as unapologetically cruel as Hedda Gabler. And it might be easy to care nothing for her character. Nevertheless, Hughes envelopes her in a crushing tragedy of the spirit. Surrounded by Neil Patel’s suggestively regal but sparse scenic design (creamy divans, white drapery and slices of red disrupting the clusters of white flowers), Plimpton’s Hedda is suffocated by the rigors of polite society.

She is like an impetuous child getting into mischief only because she can’t see any visible reason for civil behavior. After all, everyone around her seems to be wallowing in delusions and hypocrisy. That’s not to say her destructive actions are justified. But her anxiety cannot be linked to any one simplistic incident – like her husband’s lack of sensitivity (actually, he’s too sensitive).

Plot is almost irrelevant – even the fact that Hedda goads her ex-lover Eilert Lovborg back into his dissolute life, burns his prized manuscript and encourages him to commit suicide does not come across as a sufficient driving force. Her desire to destroy Lovborg and his devoted lover, Thea Elvsted, is a mere amusement – a way to pass the time and put her stamp on a concrete act of courage. She does battle mainly with the self-serving Judge Brack, whose sole purpose in life is to wield power over others.

Hedda’s ultimate act of power and courage is to boldly and confidently end her own life.

Plimpton’s Hedda is a captivating study in involuntary manipulation and inner rage. It’s nearly impossible to take one’s eyes off her – like not being able to resist peeking in at the train wreck that is Hedda’s heart.

The production, however, includes some wooden moments, especially Jane Galloway Heitz’s tentative Miss Juliana and Brigid Duffy’s stiff Berta. Even the excellent Amy J. Carle’s overly tense Thea becomes a wax-museum figure on stage. But that might be Hughes’ point. Hedda, in her excruciating boredom, is the most alive among her peers.

Matthew Sussman endows George Tesman with a lovely blend of compassion and cluelessness, but never appears doddering. Tim Hopper’s Eilert Lovborg conveys an expected volatility, but his Christ-like visage (complete with eyeliner) is symbolically heavy-handed. Tom Irwin’s suave, duplicitous and pompous Judge Brack proves to be Hedda’s most dangerous conquest.•

"Hedda Gabler" runs through Aug. 19 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. Tickets: $35-$45. Call 312-335-1650.

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