Ibsen's 'Hedda Gabler' -- a challenge for Jane Alexander

The Hartman Theater, under the direction of Edwin Sherin, opened its new season with Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler," a play that fascinates and challenges the finest actresses of the day. The Hartman's challenged actress is Jane Alexander , and here and there she rises handsomely to the challenge.

One senses that "Hedda" is not as yet a role she has under her skin, that this always-exceptional actress is still experimenting with what could coalesce into an important performance -- a few hundred repetitions from now. At this date, she looks particularly handsome, moves with regal bearing, and remains impassive, not communicating the minutiae of emotions and responses that make Ibsen's obsession-wracked creature come alive.

Hedda is desperately afraid of life, and she is obsessed with the idea of being able to control, even ruin, someone's life. In Mr. Sherin's production there are few moments that really telegraph this to the audience. the extreme contrasts between Hedda's pampered imperiousness and the simpler life she finds herself married into rarely come across. There is little sense of Ibsen's drama as a tightening watchspring that snaps violently open at the end. Nonetheless, the pacing is smooth, the actors are given plenty of room to shine, and throughout there is the aura of secure professionalism on the highest order, which is not something one can take for granted any more.

And such a cast of performers! Jan Miner was a refreshingly robust, assertive Aunt Julie. Lee Richardson's deliciously petty provincial Judge Brack, Pamela Payton-Wright's hauntingly fragile Thea -- all proved outstanding.

David Selby clearly projected the strengths and weakness of Eilert Lovborg -- a particularly difficult role to present successfully. Edward Herrmann tried valiantly to communicate George Tesman's insecurity and fusty pedantry, but it somehow didn't fall together as a complete characterization.

Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's massive set, while impressive, was not so much confining as it was oppressive, and it projected the locale and context of any British Victorian salon. Nancy Pott's costumes, particularly those for Miss Alexander, were outstanding, and Marcia Madeira's lighting was unfailingly atmospheric.

It was announced earlier in the day I attended the play that Boston University and Hartman Theater have embarked on a share plan. Mr. Sherin now heads a newly reorganized BU School of Theater, and all Hartman productions are built, rehearsed, and performed in Boston at the exquisite BU Theater (the former Modern). It is a wonderful chance for drama students to see and get to know some of the best names in American theater, work with them as well as with the designers and the whole array of staff responsible for these Hartman productions.

"Hedda Gabler" runs through Oct. 18, to be followed by Brian Moore's "Catholics" (Nov. 5-29), Shaw's "The millionairess" with Tammy Grimes (Dec. 10 - Jan. 3), "Huckleberry Finn" (Jan. 14 - Feb. 7), Pinero's "The Magistrate" (Feb. 25 - March 21), and "Mahalia" about Mahalia Jackson April 1 - 25).

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