Ibsen’s career followed a trajectory very different from that of most writers, or most artists for that matter. He had been struggling for years by the time he found critical and popular success in the late 1860s. He was nearing 40 at the premiere of “Peer Gynt,” the earliest play of his that receives any substantial attention nowadays.
“Hedda Gabler,” published in 1890, is the work of a seasoned dramatist. The 62-year-old Ibsen was at the forefront of developing psychological realism, his characters virtually unprecedented in their depth and intricacy.
The IU Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance opens its 2015-16 mainstage season with Rolf Fjelde’s translation of this formidable Norwegian masterpiece. Dale McFadden, head of IU’s M.F.A. programs in acting and directing, directed this production of “Hedda Gabler.”
The play takes place in the Kristiania (now Oslo) home of Hedda and George Tesman, just after their honeymoon. George Tesman is a young academic — not a brilliant one, but a diligent writer and researcher nonetheless.
Hedda, the daughter of an esteemed general, finds amusement only in shooting her father’s pistols and playing the first few bars of a Chopin prelude on piano.
Hedda and George’s marriage is a miserable situation for Hedda, a fiercely independent woman, well above her husband in intellect. Hedda feels nothing resembling love for him. On good days, Hedda finds George boring; on bad days, intolerable.
Even more irritating to Hedda is George’s Aunt Julie. Regardless of (or perhaps even because of) George’s adoration for her, Hedda sees Julie as a dolt seemingly unable to realize her presence is unwelcome.
The story’s central conflict is triggered by Eilert Lovborg’s return to Kristiania. Eilert, who has captured the affection of the Tesmans’ friend Thea Elvsted, is an old flame for Hedda. He happens to work in the same field as George, posing a potential threat to George’s career.
McFadden’s interpretation presents the play in all its intensity and complexity. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay McFadden for a piece such as this is that his directorial choices rarely stand out to the audience. He brings Ibsen’s genius to life, rather than demonstrating his own.
Most people don’t go into a 19th-century Norwegian drama expecting to bust a gut, but the show’s first act is quite funny. The second takes a darker turn.
Abby Lee, a first-year M.F.A. acting student, tackles the title role, known as one of the most daunting female roles in the canon of modern drama. Lee’s portrayal of Hedda brings out the character’s maniacal side, but not so much as to a fault. Lee’s performance is measured, gripping and gratifyingly atypical.
Henry Woronicz, a guest artist, plays Judge Brack, an unscrupulous associate of the Tesmans with the deadly semblance of trustworthiness. Woronicz keeps his malice under the surface until those disturbing moments when it must rise up and scathe us.
The remainder of the cast is strong, albeit not flawless. The pacing is quick when the script calls for it, but McFadden’s production has much-needed space to breathe.
The action unfolds on Kristen Martino’s set, which manages to be stunning but not distracting or overwrought.
Many of the classic dramas that shocked audiences in the 19th century have lost their power on contemporary sensibilities. “Hedda Gabler,” to the contrary, left my mouth agape with its unforgiving finale.
Those who are not willing to devote two-and-a-half hours of concentration will find little satisfaction in “Hedda Gabler.” Those who are willing to do so will be enthralled by Ibsen’s masterpiece.
If you go
WHO: Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance
WHAT: “Hedda Gabler” by Henrik Ibsen
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Ruth N. Halls Theatre in the Norvelle Center, 275 N. Jordan Ave., Bloomington
TICKETS: $15-$25. Call 812-855-1103 or visit theatre.indiana.edu