Henrik Ibsen's classic tragedy runs through April 22 at the Mainstage Theatre in the Cultural Arts Building on campus
A lot has changed since 1890. Human nature, not so much.
The characters in Henrik Ibsen's play "Hedda Gabler," about an unhappily married woman whose cruel machinations lead to tragedy, are as recognizable today as they were when the 128-year-old drama was written. A production of the classic by the University of North Carolina Wilmington's Department of Theatre brings these characters to vivid life, and a student cast is thoughtfully and precisely directed by UNCW theater professor Paul Castagno. "Hedda Gabler" runs through Sunday, April 22, at the Mainstage Theatre in the Cultural Arts Building on campus.
The production uses a new version of the play by Richard Eyre that's based on a literal translation from the Norwegian, and it uses contemporary language while trimming the play down to its essence. In terms of vibe and tone, the show's aim is dead-on in capturing the surface formality of an upper-class domestic world and the roiling emotions and motivations beneath it.
UNCW's "Hedda" opens with a scrim dropped across the stage, giving a gauzy feel to the stylish visual introductions of the main characters. Hedda Gabler, now Tesman, is a a general's daughter who has just returned from a six-month honeymoon with her new husband, George, an aspiring academic whose specialty is the Medieval history of "domestic crafts." George is a bit of a drip, and Hedda is already sick of him and his willful or actual cluelessness. (His use of the same word -- "Amazing!" -- to describe things that are commonplace, as well as things that are actually amazing, becomes a running gag.)
George, played with an endearing blandness by Will Ross, has overextended himself on behalf of his new wife, obtaining a new house and all the furnishings with quite of bit of financial help from his fawning Aunt "Juju" and, more forebodingly, from the duplicitous Judge Brack, who we soon find has his eye on Hedda.
Two unexpected arrivals inspire Hedda to set in motion a series of events that will impact multiple lives and which involve her father's beloved pistols.
The first arrival is by Hedda's former classmate and unwitting rival, Thea, who's left her much-older husband to follow a man who "makes me feel as if I exist." That man, who bears the eyebrow-raising name of Eilert Loevborg, is the second arrival, and the formerly dissolute writer credits Thea with not only his reformation but as a "collaborator" on his brilliant but unpublished new manuscript. He's also one of George's old pals and one of Hedda's old flames, and the appearance of the probably alcoholic and improbably reformed writer puts George's professorship in doubt.
Lydia Watkins convincingly plays Hedda as an ice queen, bored and frustrated beyond belief, unfeeling and cruel to be sure, and with a barely concealed contempt for her new husband and his "perpetual aunts" (including the ailing Aunt Renna, who is spoken of but never seen). The catlike hiss Watkins breaks out a couple of times doesn't really land, but there's something in her cold, emotionless delivery that's chilling.
Judge Brack fancies setting up a "triangle" with Hedda, but she is repelled by him even as she confides in him. Leland Reese Crawley plays the villainous, debauched judge with a nearly mustache-twisting glee, affecting an entertaining upper-class accent and almost literally licking his chops at the prospects of getting Hedda under his control.
Loevborg, outfitted in a costume that includes a dashing scarf and boots, is played with an electric intensity by Michael Pipicella, whose scenes crackle with desperate emotion. As Thea, Jenny McAnarney imbues her character with a heartbreaking innocence, and she's gorgeously costumed by designer Mark Sorensen so that she looks almost like a fragile porcelain doll.
As George's Aunt Juju, Darien Bradley takes doting to an overbearing new level, and Abigail Norris has some fun scenes as the contrary maid, Berthe, who often hears, and sees, things she's not meant to.
Director Castagno underscores key moments of the play with music -- droning and haunting at times, lugubrious and soap-opera-esque at others -- and it helps give the play a cinematic quality. Randall Enlow's attractive set captures the antiseptic domesticity while creating multiple playing spaces, from a garden to a drawing room, all with clean sight lines.
Don't go in expecting a happy ending. Even decades later, "Hedda Gabler" depicts the often-deceitful truth of human interaction in a way that will have you thinking about the play for a long time after the curtain closes.
Contact John Staton at 910-343-2343 or John.Staton@StarNewsOnline.com.