Review: Hedda Gabler by Silent House Theatre (SH), Waco
by Michael Meigs

Ibsen's Hedda Gabler appeals to ambitious young theatre companies. Silent House (SH) Theatre in Waco just opened its second season with Hedda, almost exactly a year after the Broke Thespians in San Marcos did the same. The work has a relatively small cast and a single living-room set, and Ibsen created several characters of memorable depth, in addition to the titular Hedda, daughter of the late General Gabler. No less an authority than Wikipedia notes that "the title role of Hedda [is] regarded as one of the most challenging and rewarding for an actress even in the present day."


Valerie Davis, Devan Mays (photo via SH)It's easy to interpret Ibsen's late-career Hedda Gabler as feminist art. He presented it in 1890 and rocked the world with a pitiless portrayal of an intelligent woman trapped and stifled in a marriage undertaken largely to avoid being pointed to as a spinster. The famous, perhaps infamous final scene delivers a shock and terrible finality only made worse by the final line, "Good God! People don't do such things."


Perhaps a clearer example of feminism is Ibsen's 1879 A Doll's House, in which Nora turns her back on an equally stifling mariage and walks out, leaving husband, child, and an oppressive, thoroughly bourgeois existence. Hedda Gabler is a different spirit entirely. And a much more dangerous one, quite capable of brandishing her dead father's pistol, making threats, and even taking potshots in the garden.


Valerie Davis pushes further. Her Hedda is a fully malicious soul. She makes no effort to hide her contempt and unhappiness. Davis's delivery is articulate, unsympathetic, and unapologetic, almost like that of a Disney villainess. That concept, a collaboration of the actor and the director, is consistent and fully convincing. This Hedda may not be mentally ill—we can't be sure—but she is close to the end of her rope. 


The roots of Hedda's character are smoothly laid out by the playwright. Hedda and her scholar-husband George return from a six-month honeymoon. Hedda deftly insults Aunt Julia Tesman, who's all flutter in expectation of a Tesman offsping, and sends her away. Avuncular Judge Brack gets contrasting recaps from the spouses. The storyline is further enhanced by the sudden appearance of Thea Elvsted, a half-remembered acquaintance from Hedda's school years, who's running from an oppressive marriage and naively pursuing Hedda's own old flame EIlert Løvborg.


The Silent House staging sets characters who are perceptive against those who are largely unaware. Hedda and Brack know exactly who they are. Hedda's deeply disaffected, bored and angry, fierce in her rejections, ready to torment others. Brack's deeply cynical, a manipulator and a patently immoral bon vivant. Bill Selby as Brack has impressive control of that character. Brack and Hedda deserve one another, almost like characters in a well-crafted graphic novel.


Bill Newby, Valerie Davis (photo via SH)


Jeanette Faye as runaway Thea Elstedt is sweetly innocent, unaware of Løvberg's debauched past or his smouldering, unconsummated affair with Hedda. Becky Fox as Aunt Julie and Kaleigh Huser as Berta the maid are peripheral, serving to some extent to ventilate the intensity of the main story.  Devan Mays has a harder task: playing George Tesman, the sincere, worrried, and largely clueless husband to Hedda. It's heart-breaking (and perplexing) to see him fail to read Hedda and Brack. Ibsen doesn't make it easy for him, for George is so full of the milk of human kindness that he's blind to evil.


Ethan Trueman is Løvberg, teetering on the edge of redemption despite earlier years of decadence. Trueman gives a finely tuned performance, rendering intensity that's mostly contained until Hedda eventually goads him beyond endurance. 


Ethan Trueman, Valerie Davis (photo via SH)


Davis lowers Hedda's anger when she has an opportunity to speak with Løvberg alone. Director Collin Selman brings the two close, over a photo album; there's an electric moment as they're nearly within kissing distance. Sexual tension is high. This is when we'd really like to like Hedda. Ibsen's somewhat opaque 19th-century dialogue tells us (without telling us) that Løvberg's descriptions of sex made a deep impression on the young Hedda, in years before she became bitter.


The set design, uncredited and probably a collaborative achievement, evokes the Tesmans' new residence with artful restraint. The Jubilee Theatre, probably designed as a cinema, offers a big black space before a scarcely raked house of about two hundred seats. A slightly raised platform beyond the furniture and piano is masked with a scrim. At the beginning the audience sees the characters seated beyond it, posed almost as if for individual portraits, and then the scrim turns opaque. That deep neutral area will return at later moments to depict an exterior and then to become a space beyond the travails of this life.


Valerie Davis (photo via SH)The women's costumes are appropriate for 19th-century bourgeoises and quite impressive (especially Hedda's black-and-red dress, suggestive of a black widow spider). Costumes for the men were somewhat odd, especially the white ruffled collars and the lapels on the jackets. Judge Brack always appeared in an elaborate, girthy coat that suited (quite literally) his character.



The company appears to have a single pistol for the Gabler family. I didn't hear the dialogue establish the fact that the general had two dueling pistols. Løvberg has a Gabler pistol with him when he's injured late in the play. Judge Brack, blackmailing Hedda, says the police have that weapon.


The papers Løvberg takes from his jacket appear too flimsy to be a full manuscript for his new and groundbreaking work (an important plot point). We can suspend some disbelief at that, but a bulkier package would have made it easier for us.


A note on pronunciation: everyone in the cast speaks well and clearly in standard U.S. English. Judge Brack's slightly pompous tone is appropriate to the character. Of more concern is his heavy innuendo toward the end as he lusts after Hedda, and then the inexplicably cool unconcern of his final line. More villainous he could not be.


Two foreign loan-words are mispronounced: petits fours (Hedda) and the toast skål! (Løvborg)


Silent House Theatre's impressive 21st-century take on Hedda is a demonstration of their dedication to theatre art and to the ample talents they bring to it. Congratulations!



Click to view Silent House Theatre's program for Hedda Gabler





Hedda Gabler
by Henrik Ibsen, translated by Publishing
Silent House Theatre (SH.)

October 13 - October 23, 2022
Jubilee Theatre, Mission Waco
1319 N. 15th Street
Waco, TX, 76707

October 13 - 23, 2022

Jubilee Theatre, Mission Waco

More forthcoming from Silent House Theatre, Waco (August 6, 2022)