The Barter Theater, which for the past 50 years has been based in the southeastern corner of Virginia, has migrated north to George Mason University for its second winter residency. The first was largely mediocre. If "Hedda Gabler," which opened a slate of five shows Thursday night, is any indication, we're in store for more of the same.
There is something fundamentally misguided about a company of such limited artistic means trying to scale the defiant peaks of Ibsen's drama. Hedda is one of the most challenging roles in the modern theater -- a woman of exalted ambitions and towering frustrations, imprisoned, as Ibsen's heroines often are, in a claustrophobic small-minded society. Gen. Gabler's pistol-packing daughter yearns for the power to shape men's destinies because she has never been allowed to forge her own. But she's also a coward at heart. Her touch is invariably the touch of destruction.
Glenda Jackson and the Royal Shakespeare Company couldn't quite animate the psychological complexities of the drama when it played the National Theatre in 1975. So it may be fruitless to expect miracles from the Barter. Still, this is an exceptionally pedestrian mounting of the play, characterized by long, rippleless patches of boredom, which abruptly give way to eruptions of lurid melodrama. Director Paul Berman lines up his actors across the footlights, like so many tin soldiers, and lets them natter on interminably until you think even the furniture will fall asleep.
Then, he turns around and indulges in the hoariest of stage effects. Hedda, you may remember, has spurned the one creative man in her life, the writer Eilert Lovborg. In a further act of spite, she feeds the only draft of his masterpiece into the large stove in her drawing room. Berman's approach at this point is to bathe the stage suddenly in blood-red light and set the thunder pealing as if for an apocalypse. At least, it's wakening.
Dorothy Holland, who looks as if she might fare better in broad farce or musical comedy, contributes a Hedda without depth or ambiguity, and her eventual suicide comes sailing in out of the blue. As her ineffectual husband, John Michalski behaves like an older version of those dolts who were always asking, "Tennis, anyone?" in 1920s comedies. Ross Bickell's malevolence, as the predatory Judge Brack, goes no further than a grave, reined-in manner. But Edward Greco, as the doomed Eilert Lovborg, suggests some of the anguish that pervades Hedda's drawing room, giving it the "smell of death."
The rest of Barter's season -- "The Matchmaker," "The Mousetrap," "Hay Fever" and "Tintypes" -- is on the less taxing side, and one hopes that once the company extracts itself from Ibsen, it will find somewhat surer footing. With "Hedda Gabler," it is ludicrously out of its element.
HEDDA GABLER. By Henrik Ibsen. Directed by Paul Berman. Set, John C. Larrance; costumes, Sigrid Insull; lighting, Albert Oster. With Joan Strueber, John Michalski, Dorothy Holland, Paula Mann, Ross Bickell, Edward Greco. At George Mason University through Nov. 28.