TAMPA — There’s not much to like about the character Hedda, the title role in Lucy Kirkwood’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. And at first, Jobsite Theater’s thought-provoking production of the updated tragedy pulls no punches about her viciousness.
She’s rude, spoiled, entitled and a bully. The ultimate mean girl. Her most prized possessions are a pair of guns her father gave her, which she gleefully uses to shoot blanks at people.
But as the drama unfolds, the underlying sadness of Hedda’s sadistic personality is unveiled.
Kirkwood has updated Ibsen’s 19th century classic by setting the drama in the 21st century in the west London neighborhood of Notting Hill. The characters all use British accents, most very well. I had no trouble understanding dialogue. Those who use closed captioning while binge-watching British dramas may not be able to keep up. However, the acting is so strong that the story conveys even if you miss a few bits.
It takes more than a modern setting to truly update a story, and Kirkwood’s script for Hedda is successful. Like Isben’s Hedda Gabler, Hedda (Emily Belvo), has complicated relationships with the men in her life. Her identity was attached to her father, an Oxford scholar Hedda’s classmates looked up to. He recently died, along with the male attention Hedda received from his proteges. That is, with the exception of George (Christopher Marshall), the mediocre scholar she married. It’s clear to everyone — even George — that she’s miserable.
With direction by Stuart Fail, the play moves at a rapid pace, unpacking the characters’ backgrounds efficiently. The stellar cast play arrogant intellectuals with delightful wit.
The entire play takes place in the couple’s shabby apartment, which was grand in its time but has fallen into disrepair. With peeling wallpaper and a window that has to be propped up, set designer Scott Cooper captured the setting for a couple who are just starting out.
The play opens with the couple’s return to their apartment from a six-month honeymoon to Japan. George extended the trip in order to do research for a book, dragging Hedda along to entertain herself while he worked. Marshall plays George very Hugh Grant-esque. He’s boyish, charming and dotes on Hedda. But there are shades of a self-serving nature.
Hedda is a bored trophy wife for the intellectual set. She does little to extricate herself from her miserable situation. When Ibsen wrote the original, women had far less opportunity. But Hedda’s response to lash out at others instead of helping herself is timeless. Many contemporary women feel like Hedda.
Belvo nails Hedda’s emotional complexities. As she reflects on time with her father, marked by pieces of music composed by Jeremy Douglass, we see a softer side.
Another layer of Hedda’s psychosis comes with the arrival of Thea (Katie Miesner), a former classmate. She’s looking for Eli (Joseph Michael-Kenneth), George’s biggest rival at Oxford and Hedda’s former lover. Thea has helped Eli get sober and the pair worked together on his latest, greatest book.
Hedda is insanely jealous of Thea, a dowdy, messy kind of girl who Hedda has terrorized. Thea was able to do what Hedda never could: be seen as an intellectual partner. Hedda hatches a manipulative, destructive plan that has tragic consequences.
A lifetime of complicated relationships with men drives Hedda to the edge. She spent her life as a desired object for the scholars but was never quite their muse. She has the intelligence to contribute to her husband’s work, but he doesn’t see her this way. Even her friend Toby (Jon Van Middlesworth) jumps at an opportunity to manipulate her.
Faced with a future plagued with boredom, Hedda makes a consequential decision.
Hedda is powerful — and, at two-and-a-half hours long, a commitment. But more than 120 years after the original, it continues to makes an indelible impression.
IF YOU GO
$29.50. Runs through June 2 in the Shimberg Playhouse at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N Macinnes Place, Tampa. (813) 229-7827. jobsitetheater.org.
Contact Maggie Duffy at [email protected] Follow @maggiedalexis.