A synopsis of Henrik Ibsen's 19th-century drama "Hedda Gabler" reads like the plot from a 20th-century TV soap opera.
Hedda -- the aloof, urbane daughter of a distinguished general -- is resignedly married to Jørgen Tesman, an eager academic in line for a university appointment. Having just returned from their honeymoon, the couple settle into their too-expensive home where acquaintances (mostly male) from Hedda's past are a constant presence, and a reminder of what she had before she traded her independence for perceived financial security.
"Hedda Gabler"★ ★ ★ ★
Location: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, (847) 242-6000 or writerstheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday (also select 2 p.m. matinees); 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday; through March 16
Running time: About 2 hours, 35 minutes, with two intermissions
Parking: Street parking nearby
Rating: For teens and older; references infidelity, alcoholism and suicide
Like those daytime dramas that once riveted millions of viewers, Ibsen's artfully ambiguous examination of a woman who manipulates others to break free from society's constraints is irresistible.
It's even more so under the astute, probing direction of Kimberly Senior, who helms Writers Theatre's stellar revival, featuring a subtly commanding performance by Kate Fry as the titular Hedda.
Hedda is quite a character, in every sense of the word. Part villain, part victim, she is restless, bored and too clever by far for the stifling Victorian era (for women at least) in which she unhappily exists. So what is a woman -- whose options consist of having babies and hosting teas with an occasional break for target practice -- to do?
Manipulate the people around her, especially the men, which the accomplished Hedda does quite easily, beginning with her husband, Jørgen. Played with nervous infatuation by Sean Fortunato, the outmatched Jørgen can't believe his luck in marrying the comely Hedda. What Jørgen doesn't realize, however, is that he has competition.
That competition unfolds in the couple's drawing room. Designer Jack Magaw's set features a kind of rustic elegance and appears to be in a perpetual state of unpacking, suggesting a couple unsettled.
Vying for Hedda's favor is her longtime friend and intellectual sparring partner Judge Brack, a calculating, insinuating cynic (masterfully played by the droll, dapper Scott Parkinson) who aspires to be the other man in Hedda's marriage. Lastly there is Hedda's former suitor and her husband's academic rival, Eilert (an aggressively dissolute, painfully self-aware Mark L. Montgomery). A brilliant scholar and recovering alcoholic, Eilert has begun to reclaim his career with help from kindhearted Thea (a lovely, fragile Chaon Cross), who has left her husband for Eilert.
Among the most notable elements of Senior's almost uncomfortably intimate production is the subtlety of the performances. Writers' A-list cast convey volumes with a raised brow and the purse of a lip. These actors are so focused, their exchanges so penetrating, their gaze so unwavering, I found myself flinching a bit at the intensity of it all, particularly at the exchanges between Fry and Parkinson, whose judge is most definitely Hedda's match.
Ultimately, however this is Fry's show. The Writers' veteran delivers a memorable performance that is ingeniously ambiguous and strikingly complex. With an outward composure that masks inner desperation, Fry's portrait of Ibsen's 19th-century lady invites our pity as well as our condemnation, which is where its brilliance lies.