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Review: Provocative questions about women's identity in 'Hedda Gabler'

Published April 15, 2014 9:52 pm

Stage review • Manzanares' mesmerizing turn in title role anchors the production.
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Hedda Gabler is one of the most compelling female characters in modern drama. And one of the most enigmatic. Is she victim or villain? On the surface, she seems a charming, clever, refined, even an emancipated woman who can get anything she wants.

But how much freedom does she really have? How much is she hemmed in by society?

Two men — her husband, scholarly, sedate George Tesman, and her former suitor, free-spirited, creative Ejlert Lövborg — are so fascinated by her that they will do anything she wants, but she seems incapable of loving either of them.

She tells Judge Brack, who matches her in playing manipulative games, "I've often thought there's only one thing I'm really good at: boring myself to death."

Hedda and the increasingly complicated world she unwittingly makes for herself leap vibrantly off the pages of Henrik Ibsen's classic melodrama in this revival currently at the Rose Wagner. Sting & Honey's production is intelligent, intense and completely engrossing from start to finish.

Deena Marie Manzanares' mesmerizing performance as Hedda and Javen Tanner's taut-as-wire direction are the principal reasons. Manzanares commands our attention from her first entrance. Her Hedda is an electric study in contradictions: warmly eliciting confidences from others and then coldly and calculatingly betraying them; consistently proving that you can get away with saying anything if you do it with a smile. At the climactic moment when she burns Lövborg's manuscript, she seems powerfully possessed and lost and vulnerable simultaneously.

Ibsen's rich text also surrounds Hedda with complex characters in constantly shifting relationships. The entire play explores under-the-surface power struggles as Hedda tries — and consistently fails — to exert her will on those around her: Tesman (Roger Dunbar); Lövborg (Gordon Dunn); Brack (Cam Deaver); sweet, motherly Aunt Julie (Kathryn Atwood); and Hedda's old schoolmate Thea Elvsted (Heidi Klein).

Thea is the true emancipated woman, the spiritual daughter of Nora in Ibsen's "A Doll's House," and Hedda's mirror image. This woman, whom Hedda describes as "that little fool," has courage to match her convictions, the essential quality that Hedda lacks. Hedda is terrified of scandal, and that fear paralyzes her ability to escape the trap she erringly sets for herself. "Everything I touch seems to turn into something mean and farcical," she ironically observes.

Dunbar's self-effacing, slightly stuffy Tesman; Dunn's wild-eyed, volatile Lövborg; Klein's self-possessed, nurturing Thea; Deaver's crafty, conniving Brack; and Atwood's dithery, solicitous Aunt Julie surround her with strong support. Tanner makes and breaks emotional connections as he moves actors around the Studio Theatre's intimate space, the perfect setting for this domestic drama.

Inspired by the Dionysian references in the text, Tanner drapes drawing-room furniture with leafless, trailing vines with a double effect: They suggest an enfolding nest, but they also entrap.

Jaron Kent Hermansen's lighting transitions dramatically to red at climactic moments, and Tara Tanner's period costumes are elegant and sophisticated. Jamin Winans' moody music has an ominous undertone.

"Hedda Gabler" provocatively illustrates the unending vitality of Ibsen's understanding of human nature. When given a rich, multifaceted production like this one, "Hedda Gabler" has plenty to say to contemporary audiences. —

Review: 'Hedda Gabler'

Sting & Honey's revival of "Hedda Gabler" injects emotional excitement and relevance into Henrik Ibsen's timeless melodrama.

When • Reviewed on April 11; plays Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with a Saturday matinee at 2 p.m.

Where • Studio Theatre at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $18, $15 for students. Call 355-ARTS or visit http://www.arttix.org for tickets and http://www.stingandhoney.org/hedda-gabler for more information.

Running time • Two and a half hours (including an intermission)