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Theaters have discovered the Physick House, the only freestanding Federal townhouse remaining in Society Hill — four productions have been staged there since last summer. The first floor’s drawing room provides an ideal setting for the new Laurel Tree Theatre Company’s Hedda Gabler, Henrik Ibsen’s 1891 drama about a discontented woman trapped in an unhappy marriage.
Hedda Gabler plays surprisingly well today, despite the steamy melodramatic vibe. The setting’s confines allow some scenes to play in conspiratorial whispers and let others start in hallways as characters walk into the room. The trappings feel naturalistic — sans theater lighting, a maximum of 30 people sit on three sides of the room, inches from the action — but the emotions run hot and large.
The right people for the job
Fortunately, director Josh Hitchens casts the right actors, starting with Jennifer Summerfield’s radiant, petulant, altogether loathsome yet alluring Hedda. In size, complexity, and notoriety, Hedda may be the female Hamlet — though her personality more closely resembles Iago. We laugh and shake our heads disapprovingly when she gleefully admits to mistaking her husband’s aunt’s hat for the maid’s, just to rile the old bird. Where Summerfield truly shines, though, is when Hedda’s plans begin to crumble.
She’s dismissive and cruel to her adoring new husband George Tesman (Adam Altman), referring to “love” as “that syrupy word.” She lives in a world where women’s lives revolve around men; today, she might be a politician, a corporate CEO, a defense lawyer, or a TV executive — in 1891 Norway, she’s a wife because to not be a wife is to be nothing. It’s no accident that Ibsen refers to Mrs. Tesman by her maiden name.
Hedda enjoys flirting with old friend Judge Brack (Nathan Foley), whose lascivious intentions and ethical failings — expressed in his velvety baritone whisper, eyebrows raised in bemusement — feel very contemporary. Her interest is piqued, however, by lovely schoolmate Thea (Jessica DalCanton, utterly sincere and not a ninny, as Thea is often portrayed), who adores Hedda’s old flame Eilert Lövborg.
Melodrama that rings true
Jared Reed — the best local actor we never get to see (unless we travel out to Hedgerow Theatre, where he is artistic director and occasionally graces the stage) — changes the temperature in the room when he enters, introducing a cool eerie quietness even as the tension between Eilert and Hedda crackles. His monumental task, which he accomplishes skillfully, is to be a self-flagellating alcoholic to us while simultaneously a heroic artiste with “vine leaves in his hair” to Hedda.
“For once in my life,” Hedda schemes, “I want to have control over another human being.” She has many to choose from, but only one really challenges her.
Events build dizzyingly in Hedda Gabler, which can feel melodramatic, even ridiculous, in less capable hands. The entire cast — which also includes Tanya Lazar as Aunt Juliana and Colleen Hughes as the maid — make the play’s incredible twists appropriately large and heartfelt. They play naturally in Tina Giovannone’s sumptuous period costumes, with artisan contributions from Autumnlin Kietponglert, Mary Kinney, Holly Gaiman, and Michele Schutte.
We feel the pressure rise in Hedda, see the wheels turning in her head, as the play’s fateful night turns to day. Like Summerfield’s finely wrought character, Hedda Gabler is difficult to like, yet hypnotically powerful.
What, When, Where
Hedda Gabler, by Henrik Ibsen. Josh Hitchens directed. Through December 20. Laurel Tree Theatre Company at the Physick House, 321 South 4th Street., Philadelphia. Tickets available here.
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