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"Hedda Gabler' adrift between two worlds

It's not easy to get a grip on Hedda Gabler.

Henrik Ibsen's play about a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage and a culture that offers her no other viable options was revolutionary, even shocking, when Ibsen wrote it in 1890, but today it seems far from avant garde.

Its title character, once a symbol of modern women struggling for freedom, looks to 21st century eyes more spoiled, dependent and pointlessly destructive than tragic. And sisterhood? Hedda hasn't heard about it.

In the first play of its second season, Banyan Theater Company wrestles with Ibsen's troublesome woman and doesn't quite pin her down.

Hedda Gabler is a general's daughter. She is refined and lovely, but she has inherited her father's tactical skills and ruthless aggression with no place to employ them but domestic life.

She has secretly loved a gifted, dangerous man but rejected him to marry a weak one because he is easy to manipulate. She speaks often of her longing for freedom but lives in mortal fear of scandal and loss of status.

As the play opens, she returns from a long honeymoon bored and bitterly pregnant, only to find her former love hugely successful, romantically involved with an old schoolmate and a threat to her husband's financial prospects.

Tessie Hogan nails Hedda's mood swings: the commanding aristocrat, the sly flirt, the petulant child. Hogan offers an interesting postmodern take on Hedda, playing her not as a rebellious martyr to a stupidly stuffy society but as a rage-fueled avenger.

But the other performances don't seem to be on the same page. Crislyn V'Soske comes closest, conveying the warmth and unlikely courage of Hedda's rival, Mrs. Elvsted. V Craig Heidenreich as Hedda's secret love, Eilbert Lovborg; Howard Elfman as her conniving confidant, Judge Brack; and Melliss Kenworthy as saintly Aunt Julie turn in stolidly traditional performances.

And Hedda's husband is supposed to be clueless George, but with his long legs, narrow face, verbal tics and tantrums, Matt Bradford Sullivan evokes nothing so much as John Cleese playing Basil Fawlty, which puts a crimp in the play's serious tone.

It feels like director Gil Lazier couldn't figure out how to handle Hedda, either, so she just took over the play, although it's easy to see how she would.

The handsome single set designed by Alexander Okun captures the exacting elegance of Hedda's home, and Marty Petlock's lighting is subtly effective. The costumes, designed by David Covach, do a fine job of defining each character visually, particularly Hedda's gowns, which look luxurious and suffocatingly confining at once.

Up next:SIDE SHOW

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