Miami Theater Center humanizes ‘Hedda Gabler’

The tagline for Miami Theater Center’s bold new production of Hedda Gabler suggests that the dissatisfied antiheroine in Henrik Ibsen’s classic drama is the original Desperate Housewife.

That contemporary comparison isn’t off base for this timeless story of a woman trapped by convention, marriage and her own foolish behavior. The play, which was published in 1890, arrives in present-day South Florida with a new adaptation, a swift pace, the sleek flourish of Miami Modern design — and an undeniable relevance.

“You can look at it from different perspectives, a feminist perspective or just a human perspective,” artistic director Stephanie Ansin says of the production, which opens to a sold-out house Saturday and runs through Nov. 16 (tickets are still available for previews Thursday and Friday). “Women are still not treated equally everywhere in the world. … Women are choosing family life over career or career over family life, dealing with those struggles. Am I going to do something that’s good for myself, or am I going to do something that’s good for my family? Everybody deals with that every minute of the day.”

Ansin and MTC’s Resident Artist Fernando Calzadilla, who designed the set, lighting and costumes, are on to something here. Their Hedda Gabler — they adapted the script together — views the unhappily married woman as an empathetic figure, not a shrill neurotic or languid dreamer. She’s married to a decent man she doesn’t love, and her world is thrown into upheaval by the appearance of her former lover, a writer who was far too unstable to build a life with.

The set, inspired by a contemporary fish tank you can find in Sky Mall magazine, not only traps Hedda but also exposes her; actress Jessica Farr doesn’t leave the stage for the duration of the play. Seating the audience on the stage — staring right into the fish bowl of Hedda’s disastrous life — only enhances the sensation of claustrophobia.

Scriptwise, Ansin says, the biggest challenge was creating a Hedda for whom the audience would feel compassion.

“Is she neurotic? Is she a heroine? Is she a villain? We’re teasing through those issues trying to find a real person, a relatable person so our audience isn’t like, ‘Oh, I don’t like her,’” she says. “Our composer [Luciano Stazzone] read the script and said, ‘She’s crazy.’ Period! Then when he saw our first stumble-through he said, ‘Oh, I get it now. We’re all a little bit Hedda.’”

“It’s a very Aristotelian thing in the poetic sense,” Calzadilla says. “You have to have empathy with a tragic hero, and Hedda is not far from being a tragic hero. … That’s what we tried to work on. She’s a human being. The people around her are also human beings.”

Actress Farr credits the lengthy rehearsal process (eight weeks) for her ability to get into Hedda’s skin.

“She’s a caged exotic animal,” says Farr, 25, a graduate of the New World School of the Arts and a company member of Mad Cat Theatre, which shares space with MTC and O Cinema Miami Shores. “The minute I walk into that space I feel transformed. Living in that space, breathing in it, I’ve gotten to know her very well. … My antennae have been piqued during this process about gender roles and how we perform gender and interact in a society that’s breaking down. … Hedda and Lovborg can’t exist within it. They challenge the status quo. And even now, the spectrum of expectations for women is limited. I think women do choose ways to navigate craftily in a man’s world. It still is a man’s world in many ways. It’s changing incrementally, but it’s still challenging.”

Farr is a younger-than-usual Hedda — recently the character has been played on stage by Mary Louise Parker and Cate Blanchett — but Ansin and Calzadilla see her as an old soul whose maturity fits Hedda perfectly. The cast is rounded out by veteran Gregg Weiner as George Tesman, Hedda’s husband, and Paul Tei (Burn Notice) as Lovborg.

Tesman is often portrayed as foppish, but Ansin and Calzadilla wanted a character who made Hedda’s choices more complex.

“We felt the way he’d been represented was not interesting,” Ansin says. “You’d think ‘Of course she wants to shoot herself, I wouldn’t want to be married to him for two seconds.’ But it’s much more interesting if he’s intelligent and attractive . … he’s marriage material.”

Hedda Gabler marks MTC’s second foray into dramatic adult fare after last year’s production of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters. The company, founded as the PlayGround Theatre in 2005, will continue to perform such multigenerational plays as The Red Thread. But its next adult offering comes in February with a production of The Seven Year Itch, which will be performed on the same set as Hedda Gabler, with minor tweaks.

“Both plays take place in a house in a living room. Hedda’s trapped in a man’s world. Richard in The Seven Year Itch is trapped in a women’s world,” Ansin says. “It’s a different genre, a different part of the world [New York in the 1950s], but the themes and conflicts are similar. I thought, ‘How interesting if we could do them on one set.’”

But whatever works MTC tackles, the object is the same, Calzadilla says.

“For us, there’s no difference between doing Hedda Gabler and The Red Thread. The Red Thread has the same intensity, the same problems as Hedda Gabler. It’s just a different story. The purpose of the show is the same. I want to move the audience. I want to transform the audience. The story is just the vehicle.”