It’s almost a trend, this business of writing new plays around Henrik Ibsen heroines. Lucas Hnath’s popular “A Doll’s House, Part 2” asks what happens when Nora Helmer comes back years after famously walking out on her husband in Ibsen’s drama. Now Jon Klein’s “Hedda Gabler” riff is getting around, too, with Washington Stage Guild producing the East Coast premiere of his comic “Resolving Hedda.”
Klein’s hook is that the whip-smart Hedda — who, in Ibsen’s tragedy, slouches into an instantly unhappy marriage, finds herself boxed in by society and impending motherhood, and suffers a violent finish — finally resists and tries to steer events in a different direction.
“Hedda is outside of time,” Klein explains of his plot. “She speaks in a 2019 voice, making 2019 references that her fellow characters don’t understand, but she has become that awakened. She is able to talk to an audience in terms of things that are happening right now.”
The idea came to Klein after years of teaching “Hedda Gabler” to students as “a masterpiece of dramatic structure,” he says. Eventually, something about his lessons nagged at him.
“I started hearing this distinctly female voice saying, ‘Really? Are you sure about that?’ ” says Klein, 64, who has taught at Catholic University for the past 15 years. “Her character’s voice was missing from my conversations about the play. She had a different point of view than Ibsen probably would. It was mostly her idea, not mine. I wrote it just hearing her talk in my brain.”
Klein has built a journeyman’s career, never landing on Broadway but enjoying plenty of productions around the country. His two-character adventure “T Bone N Weasel” was a staple on the regional circuit in the 1990s, which is also when his environmental comedy (and interspecies romance) “Betty the Yeti” gained wide traction. He published a book, “Life as a Playwright: A Survival Guide,” last year; Klein describes it as notes to aspiring writers from “a working-stiff playwright, not very well known but mostly able to make a living at it. I tell people what they’re in for, the good and the bad. There’s a whole chapter about luck. The publisher went, ‘Luck? People can’t do anything about luck.’ Exactly! That’s why I want to talk about it.”
Audiences don’t need to be steeped in Ibsen to get “Resolving Hedda,” which Klein had in hand before he heard of Hnath’s “Doll’s House, Part 2” (a 2017 Tony Award nominee that gets its area premiere from Round House Theatre this summer). “I thought, ‘Okay, at least he didn’t pick the same play,’” Klein says. During “Resolving Hedda’s” 2017 premiere at the Victory Theatre in Los Angeles, where the L.A. Times described it as a “boisterous new comedy,” most viewers were unacquainted with Ibsen’s original. Despite his own affinity for the drama, Klein has never seen a staging of it that he really liked.
“It tends to get cast with a star who’s probably too old to play the role, and the rest of the play gets swallowed by her stardom,” he says from Los Angeles, where his wife, writer Laura Shamas, keeps a townhouse where they like to get away. “I hate it when I feel the other characters get lost.”
Inescapably, Hedda Gabler is a diva. Ibsen’s Hedda is a formidable, mysterious personality — restless, arch, abrasive. “The last time I taught it, students were vocal about how they don’t like her,” Klein says. “Well, you’re sort of missing the point. You’re not taking into account the time, why it would be difficult for her to express herself and make decisions. Nora closed the door and caused riots and was considered a terrible person for doing that. Hedda was similar: trying to manipulate others, gain power in relationships and not go along. There’s still this conditioning, this questioning whether women should be doing that.”
In our era, that’s motivation to see this experiment through?
“Well,” Klein says, “it was for Hedda.”
The Undercroft Theatre of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 240-582-0050. stageguild.org.
Dates: Through April 14.