The Classic Theatre wraps up its season with a solid production of Henrik Ibsen’s famous Hedda Gabler (now only occasionally known by its working title, The Real Housewives of Sør-Trøndelag County). While other plays by Ibsen grapple with the Big Picture — including the public policy analysis of An Enemy of the People or the staggering metaphysical leaps of The Master Builder — Hedda is among the playwright’s bourgeois-iest, taking aim at the perils and paradoxes of a comfortable middle-class marriage. At the center of the plot, of course, is poor, bored Hedda, a dame with a head full of dreams, but a body full of baby; there’s no escape now from her disastrously ill-judged marriage to George Tesman, a clueless academic who lives only to make his pampered bride happy.
But very little can make Hedda happy: She’s arguably the most desperate housewife of the 19th century. And when Hedda’s previous flame — the brilliant, dissolute Eilert Loevborg — crosses the fjord and her threshold, the stage is set for Ibsen’s devastating dissection of genteel relationships and every marriage’s delicate balance of power.
Indeed, I give nothing away by saying that there is, in fact, exactly one thing that makes Hedda happy: power. (Well, power makes everybody happy, but especially Hedda.) And Asia Ciaravino makes for a particularly ravenous Hedda, probing for weakness in the first two acts, and then pouncing in the last two. But such a hunger comes at a price: Hers is also the least sympathetic Hedda I’ve seen, full of poison, but little honey. As the clueless professor, Andrew Thornton proves that he’s among the most consistently accomplished actors in San Antonio; if you want to see some excellent timing, enjoy Tesman’s clumsy riff on the day’s events: “No, not a strange thing; a very funny thing. No, not a funny thing at all; actually a tragic thing. No, no, that’s too strong. A sad thing, yes; yes, a very sad thing happened.” Lesser actors might milk this histrionically, but Thornton tosses it off while settling into a divan. Tesman has just bumbled his way through one possible definition of modernity, and does it as Tesman does everything: unwittingly.
The supporting roles are well cast and reflect the gamut of Hedda’s obstacles to happiness, from the oppressive, maternal clucking of Auntie Juliana (Terri Peña Ross) to the lecherous advances of the odious, power-mad Judge Brack (Allan Ross). Especially affecting are Eric Geyer and Gypsy Pantoja as the star-crossed lovers who represent for Hedda the road — and marriage — not taken. Allan Ross’ handsome set wittily exaggerates the text’s abundant floral imagery, with oh-so-suggestive flowers lurking in the paintings, the table-settings, and even the upholstery. Hedda, of course, is no shrinking violet — more like a Venus Flytrap. (Or perhaps stinkweed.)
There are some missteps. At the least, Hedda is clearly bucking for the Current’s Worst Prop Award: Loevborg’s apparently path-breaking tome on the cultural history of Europe is ridiculously flimsy — it actually looks like a coloring book. (Just fill in with your choice of crayons and voilà! The professoriate is yours.) And under Tony Ciaravino’s direction, the first two acts — until intermission — are occasionally languid, with the opening night’s ensemble seeming at times tentative, as if still easing into their roles. The last half-hour, however, is gripping stuff, as Hedda’s web of deceit unravels to the ruin of all. At the climax, the patrons in my row practically shat themselves. (You and your undergarments have been warned.)
As it concludes its third year, the Classic Theatre seems to be settling into a consistent house style: experimental for Shakespeare, but straightforward and naturalistic for Chekhov, Ibsen, Williams, et al. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, though it might have been nice to see Hedda performed with robots. (I’m not making that up, by the way; Heddatron has been making the rounds, most recently in Austin.) In the meantime, the Classic Theatre serves up a classic in classical style, so why not pay Hedda a house call? Rumor has it that she’s bored, bored, bored.
8pm Thu-Sat, 3pm matinee Sun
Sterling Houston Theatre at Jump-Start, 108 Blue Star
Through May 29