One of the things I love about theater (and there are many) is its timelessness. The sheer fact that Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, 127 years old, has themes that still resonate with us now is mind-blowing. I know I often say I’m a fan of taking a risk on new work, but this is another type of risk, performing a show this old.
Hedda Gabler (Joanna Palladino) and her new husband George Tesman (Nick Bosanko) have just returned from their honeymoon and are settling into their home, next door to George’s aunt Julia (Kathleen Engelhardt.) When Thea and Eilert (Vivian Wilson-Hwang and Evan Jones), friends from Hedda and George’s past, come into the picture, Hedda’s interference with their lives has far-reaching implications.
Director Juliet King chose to set the production in Cambridge in 1951; at first I was unsure if this would work, but it does, seamlessly. Ibsen’s work is, as mentioned, timeless enough that, as King mentions in her director’s notes in the program, this could “be set in anyplace, anytime.” The best part of setting it at this time is that it allows costume designer Beth Ruman to work her magic; Palladino’s costumes are pure ‘50s sumptuousness, all nipped waists and wide rustling skirts, and her hair and makeup are on point for the time period as well – she could have stepped from the pages of a fashion magazine from that era.
Palladino not only plays the titular star of the show, she steals the show; your eyes are drawn to her no matter where she is on stage. She is electric, and she owns this production. Her interactions with cast members are equally memorable; she dominates Wilson-Hwang, has true chemistry with Jones and plays cat-and-mouse with John Sutton, who plays the despicable Judge Brack, with ease. Bosanko relies a bit too much on mannerisms for his portrayal of George; I wanted to see more of the character himself. Engelhardt mugs far too much to the audience – the character is not meant to be as humorous as she is attempting to make her, and it’s off-putting. Wilson-Hwang’s Thea is sweet and likeable; it’s a tough job, being one of the only good characters surrounded by monsters, and she carries it off admirably. Jones put serious work into Eilert – he’s a fully formed character, and Jones’ work here is excellent. His dynamics with Palladino and Wilson-Hwang are filled with history yet very different for each woman – watching him was a treat. Sutton was truly cringe-worthy to watch – no, no, wait, hear me out: he imbued the judge with such sexual menace that it made it hard for me to watch him in scenes with Palladino. There are few things that faze me anymore, so kudos to him for a job well done.
Although not a flawless show, this production has a lot going for it, and I commend King and everyone at Albany Civic for taking this on and keeping Ibsen’s work alive for us here in the Capital Region.
“Hedda Gabler,” Albany Civic Theater; 235 Second Ave., Albany; through February 18; $18-$10; Run time: 2 hours and 40 minutes with a 15-minute intermission and a 10-minute intermission; (518) 462-1297; http://www.albanycivictheater.org/