"What a hideous play!"
So wrote The Daily Telegraph reviewer when "Hedda Gabler" made its debut in London in 1891.
"It was like a visit to the morgue," he continued. "There they all were, false men, wicked women, deceitful friends, sensualists, egotists ... what a horrible story."
You can see for yourself at The River Theater in Astoria next week.
Susi Brown was transfixed by "Hedda Gabler" as a student at Yamhill-Carlton High School in 1968. But it would be decades before she would grab the tiger by the tail. The play fomented in Brown's psyche through graduate school at the University of Portland, where her master's thesis was built on "A Doll's House," another of Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen's wonders.
After an English and drama teaching career smeared with greasepaint and punctuated by applause, Brown retired from Knappa High School in 2002. Dean Major plays Hedda's scholarly husband Jorgen, but Hedda's admirers also include Ejlert Lovborg and Judge Brack, played by Mick Alderman and Michael Miller.Those who attended her River Theater production of "Macbeth" last year know the lady of leisure image didn't last long. Amid Shakespeare's clanking swords, director Brown said she found the core of her "dream cast" for the Norwegian classic.
"I wanted to wait until I was really ready," Brown said. "I knew it was a difficult play that even some professional companies have a fear of staging. I saw some productions of it that were so adventurous. Then I saw the actors in 'Macbeth' - people with such clear intelligence who could tackle this show, with me, not under me."
She said the board of The River Theater is eager to further embrace the Scandinavian community at Astoria's core. "We all end up being a little bit Norwegian by being here," said Brown, adding that the Victorian setting dovetails with the ambiance of Astoria's historic houses.
Thea, played by Kimberly Kile, shows her unease with Hedda."Hedda Gabler" is set in 1890 Norway, Ibsen's era. It begins with aristocrat Hedda yoking her life to a pleasant but pedantic scholar Jorgen, who is devoted to his maiden aunt. The couple's extravagant overseas honeymoon indulges her husband's arcane research. But after six months, Hedda returns to Norway bored beyond imagination, unwilling to embrace her emerging pregnancy, facing an uncertain financial future when Jorgen's promised university appointment teeters.
She relieves her boredom by manipulating everyone around her with spiraling unpleasantness.
"There are so many levels of complexity to this character," said Rhonda Alderman, who plays Hedda. "I wish I could say I did all kinds of deep research and soul-searching to 'find' Hedda, but in fact I think there's a little of her already in my head.
"There's a dark side to all of us. It was just a matter of letting her loose. It's there in all of us - we just ordinarily keep it in check.
Judge Brack, played by Michael Miller, sets his sights on Hedda.Ibsen's stage directions recommend a prominent portrait of General Gabler, who raised his daughter to ride with the wind in her hair and shoot like a man. "She is a female trapped in a man-dominated world," Brown said. In The River's production, the portrait stares down on everything, allowing Brown to mix the flavor of a ghost story amid the feminist themes.
Mick Alderman, who played Macbeth, appears as Ejlert Lovborg, Jorgen's academic rival and the man most likely to spark Hedda's passion. The admiration of the ingenuous Thea Elvsted has helped Lovborg (Ibsen's somewhat autobiographical character) climb out of the bottle of despair to create a book that eclipses Jorgen's efforts. His return, which threatens Hedda's independence and financial security, triggers disaster.
Thea, played by Kimberly Kile, is everything Hedda is not. She has courageously left her boorish husband after being governess then mother to his children. Thea believes in Lovborg 's work, though she doesn't understand it. And her flowing hair rekindles in Hedda their childhood rivalry.
Dean Major plays Jorgen, Michael Miller appears as Judge Brack, a schemer equally manipulative in his pursuit of Hedda, Toni Ihander plays Jorgen's motherly Aunt Juli and Brandy Bierly Hussa is the housekeeeper, Berte.
Married couple Rhonda and Mick Alderman share the stage in "Hedda Gabler."Hedda's character is irresistible for Brown, a teacher who spent 31 years of her professional life, 24 at Knappa, surrounded by teenagers. "The way she deals with things, she seems like an eternal teen. She never gives up on that nastiness."
Approaching 30 and fearing a dry spinster's existence, Hedda marries the only man who asks her, someone who promises a comfortable future. "I don't think happiness is in the cards for her," Brown said. "She could choose to be happy. But she would never be a person who could 'make the best of it.'"
Although Hedda shows some delight in vicarious knowledge of the menfolk's debauchery, convention and cowardice prevent her consummating any happiness with two admirers. "I don't think she has sufficient passion that she can self-ignite. She has burned her bridges with those who could draw that out of her."
Brown says the mature themes and offstage violence make the play suitable for audiences 12 and older.
"It's a social drama ... plus it's about Victorian society," Brown said. "But in the long run, we are still facing the same issues, the pressure of image, the double standard for men and women."
What: Henrik Ibsen's play set in late 19th-century Norway.
Where: The River Theater, 230 W Marine Drive, Astoria.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Friday and Saturdays, Feb. 5, 6, 7 and 12, 13, 14; 2 p.m. matinees Sundays, Feb. 8 and 15.
Tickets: $10 general admission, $7 students and seniors. Advance purchase at the theater box office, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, and one hour before each performance, or by calling (503) 325-7487 with Visa/Mastercard.
Special events: Champagne opening to toast the cast and crew 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 5, with free champagne for people over 21. Bill's Tavern Brewhouse beer and wine will be available at all evening performances.
Saturday, Feb. 14, The River and Cafe Uniontown, 218 W. Marine Drive, will offer dinner and theater tickets for $65 per couple. Dinner at 6 p.m. features a choice of prime rib, hazelnut encrusted halibut or chicken Alfredo. Advance reservations will be taken through The River only until 5 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 12.