‘Hedda’ is a female Hamlet on steroids 

"Good God — people don’t do such things!"

That’s the last line of Henrik Johan Ibsen’s "Hedda Gabler," capping an intriguing, tragic story, which is exactly about the things people do. The classic 1890 play, coming to the American Conservatory Theater on Valentine’s Day, is one of the great Norwegian playwright’s many masterpieces of compelling drama with searing insights into the human heart and condition.

Two major themes this "father of modern drama" explored for the six decades of his writing career come together in "Hedda Gabler" — women’s place in (19th century) society ("A Doll’s House," "Ghosts") and an individual’s struggle against the environment ("An Enemy of the People," "The Wild Duck," "The Master Builder").

More than Nora of "A Doll’s House," a victim of oppression who rebels against her "masters," Hedda is a complex, ambiguous character, a mixture of good and bad, somebody caught in a situation, but also responsible for her difficulties.

Because of that shaded persona, Hedda is among the most coveted roles in the theater. At A.C.T., the prize — and challenge — is going to René Augesen, one of the company’s most frequently featured lead actresses. It will be up to her to convey the complex character of a young woman, just married, but "below her station" and with little evidence of love for her earnest, well-meaning, and dull husband.

The A.C.T. production’s nationally known director, Richard E. T. White, speaks of Hedda’s "dynamic ambiguity" (a phrase that well describes all of Ibsen), and the contrast between Hedda and another character in the play who has the courage to act on her feelings. "The possibility of change exists (for Hedda)," White says, "but she is caught between her instincts and a Hamlet-like indecision. We all face those moments when the possibility presents itself of mutating, evolving into the person we are meant to be — and what do we do when faced with that choice?

"What’s wonderful about Ibsen’s treatment is how he strips away everything but the essential, how he communicates in short, conversational sentences that then somehow add up to something meaningful and memorable." The production uses Paul Walsh’s new translation of the Norwegian original.

White and A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff have assembled a sterling cast, in which even the role of the maid is assigned to such theatrical luminary as Barbara Oliver. Anthony Fusco plays Hedda’s husband, Sharon Lockwood is the husband’s well-meaning aunt, Jack Willis is Brack, the unctuous controller who tries to seduce Hedda. Stephen Barker Turner portrays Lovborg, Hedda’s former love, and newcomer Finnerty Steeves plays Mrs. Elvsted.

The design team for the production includes Kent Dorsey (sets), Sandra Woodall (costumes), Alexander V. Nichols (lights) and John Gromada (sound design and original music compositions).

If you go

Hedda Gabler

Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes March 11

Tickets: $16 to $80

Contact: (415) 749-2228 or www.act-sf.org

Looking for a great place to eat after the theater? Check out Patricia Unterman's restaurant reviews.

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Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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