Hedda Gabler is a play about crazy people. Its characters have every diagnosis in the book: psychopathy, narcissism, sex addiction, obsessive-compulsion, sadism, you name it. No therapy could ever help them. No pill could ever balance their mood swings. Henrik Ibsen's world is a free-range madhouse, anchored by the craziest character of all, the titular Hedda Gabler. She's dramatic, self-indulgent, spontaneous, sociopathic. Her taste for drawn curtains and antique pistols verges on the gothic.
And yet, cruel as she is, Hedda Gabler is resplendent in her madness. She is Id personified. She is a heat-seeking missile, aimed at destroying everyone around her, for the mere pleasure of playing chess with fate.
In a nutshell (so to speak), Hedda Gabler has just married the nerdy George Tesman. But from the moment she enters, we know there's something weird about Hedda -- her wide-eyed flamboyance, the way she mocks her guests and encourages fights. The Tesman household is like a train station for tortured souls, where acquaintances wander in and reveal their highest ambitions. One by one, Hedda provokes them. She flirts naughtily with the local judge; she threatens to set a girl's hair on fire. She casually urges a "friend" to blow his brains out, and when he does, she laughs. Hedda Gabler has lost her mind, but luckily, so has everybody else.
As produced by Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, Hedda Gabler is an Hitchcockian suspense story, resisting the usual hang-ups of Ibsen plays: Judith Thompson's adaptation is nuanced and fluid, and director Tadeusz Bradecki has a sophisticated eye for detail. Each performer in the Gabler cast is seasoned and precise; together, they build an unbearable tension. Robin Walsh, who plays Hedda, radiates intensity, but she is also playful, girlish, even snarky. Through the layers of character-building, we can see that Walsh, one of Pittsburgh's most astonishing leading women, is loving her role.
Indeed, Hedda Gabler is far from mere Victorian melodrama. Given the time of the play's writing (1891), the level of violence and psychological fury is astounding. The characters seem capable of any malevolent impulse. There are whorehouses and drunken tirades; most shocking of all, a man shoots off his own genitals -- a wound that proves fatal. This is old-school theatre for a new audience, a comedy of manners by way of A Clockwork Orange. Even for a classical company like PICT, it's a profound achievement.
Hedda Gabler continues through Sat., June 30. Charity-Randall Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial, Forbes Avenue at Bigelow Boulevard, Oakland. 412-394-3353 or www.picttheatre.org
- Gun crazy: Robin Walsh in PICT's Hedda Gabler. Photo by Suellen Fitzsimmons.