WESTMINSTER — While celebrating the 100th anniversary of Henrik Ibsen's classic "Hedda Gabler," the Western Maryland College Theatre's production contradicts some of the very principles of the play's genre.
Theater history (and the program notes) hail "Hedda" as "a pivotal piece of realistic drama."
The well-known and oft-produced play tells of the title character's marriage of convenience to an ineffectual, sexless, and constantlypreoccupied minor scholar who leaves his bride to rattle about in a large and cheerless house while he engages in his inconsequential research and attends "male" gatherings.
Hedda tries to extricate herself from her boredom and dissatisfaction through futile attempts to gain control of her environment and the people in it. Her failure leads to eventual resignation and suicide, which provokes the play's brief, pithy and well-known denouement, "People don't do such things."
The rise of realism in 19th-century Western theater was accompanied by the emergence of what we now know as the director.
A director is essential for these "modern plays," which, because of their dramatic and philosophic complexity and their concentration on psychologicalaspects of character, demand a single interpretive and controlling force to provide the focus and cohesiveness necessary for audience comprehension.
In the program notes, director Ron Miller explains that he has cast 13 student actors for the play's seven parts and that he will use different actors for each performance. He has encouraged his actors to "create their own patterns of movement."
For Miller, the production "represents less the vision of the director than the creative enthusiasm of a team of student actors applying their learning in the laboratory of performance."
Thus liberated on the one hand and limited on the other, these actors do as well as can be expected in what becomes a kind of treatise on upper-class Norwegian life, rather than the intense dramatic study of human passions and needs theplaywright intended.
Instead of the building dynamics of human interaction, we are given a rather flat view of events and characters. Some of this must be a result of limited rehearsal time for individual actors due to double casting.
What results is a production that is like a novel without a narrative point of view, a rudderless ship,a ballgame without an umpire: It is unfocused, adrift and without parameters.
In realistic drama, the end is contained in the beginning, there is foreshadowing. Hints and clues are provided which lead irrevocably to the play's climax. In this production, Hedda's suicide feels tacked on rather than integrated.
To single out or to name the actors involved in this exercise would be akin to publishing the first drafts of their term papers.
There are other problems. The director has allowed his actors to use several different dialects and tobe inconsistent within each.
The program does not tell where and when the play's four acts take place, leaving audience members to fend for themselves.
On the plus side are Steve Miller's costumes, which are handsome, well-fitted, historically accurate and appropriate for each character.
Just when one would think designer Ira Domser had exhausted the scenic possibilities of the Dorothy Elderdice Understage Theatre, he comes up with a brilliant, provocative and stronglycontributive environment for "Hedda."
He uses real furniture in alarge and angular space with the audience on three sides and above the action. To this he adds the fascinating amalgamation of wood, marble, plaster, tile, brick, glass and various textiles.
The resulting marriage of realism, impressionism and constructivism is highly appropriate for a play in which such diverse characters and events come together in conflict, contradiction and crisis.
Domser's coup d' theater, however, is the fascinating metaphorical use of brick to partially wall up the six brilliant stained-glass windows that are permanent features of Alumni Hall. This inspired device is elegantly symbolic of the slow silencing of Hedda's heart.
This opening performance of "Hedda Gabler" was one of six scheduled. With all of the variouscast permutations and all of the performances, six very different productions could be experienced. Take a chance.
The Western Maryland College Theatre production of "Hedda Gabler" continues at 7 p.m. Thursday and Sunday and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Alumni Hall.