By Dale King
Students in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Florida Atlantic University have picked up where their predecessors left off nearly two seasons ago when a COVID pandemic forced FAU to curtail public performances and required young actors to hone their talents behind the scenes.
Last weekend, a new troupe of budding thespians – 10 of them pursuing master’s degrees – took to the stage of the newly named Marleen Forkas Studio One Theatre to revive a performance schedule that for too long has kept theatergoers away from their appointed seats.
Despite some lingering coronavirus jitters, student actors filled more than half the seats with their exceptional staging of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. Director Desmond Gallant — who details his fascination for Ibsen’s work and particularly Hedda Gabler in the program book — says Hedda’s “frustration, anger and despair come about for a multitude of reasons, and the play carefully reveals her conflicts, layer by layer.”
Set on an elegantly decorated stage that clearly appears to be the dwelling of well-to-do occupants, the play begins with Hedda (Rachel Dawson) and her new husband, George Tesman (Michael Focas) returning from a lengthy honeymoon —to a home she doesn’t want, with a man she doesn’t love.
Thus begins a four-act period of despair and antipathy for Hedda, who is lovely in face and poised in demeanor, yet apparently filled with angst — a condition she hides well.
“It’s you who won the beautiful Hedda Gabler,” George’s Aunt Juliana (Alyssa Frewen) tells her naïve, but intelligent nephew.
But consuming emotions are in the offing. By this moment in the play, George, an inveterate academic intent on earning a university professorship so he can afford his new wife’s expensive tastes, has already played his hand. He spent part of the honeymoon engrossed in book-filled research.
That doesn’t fit well with Hedda, whose attitude is “to live a life fulfilled,” says Gallant. “(Ibsen) especially focuses on the opportunities provided or denied to women.”
Throughout the play, the Gabler/Tesman home becomes a meeting place for folks who have obviously met and/or enjoyed past liaisons. George’s affable Aunt Juliana arrives. He calls her “Aunt Juju” — a nickname Hedda finds too inane to use. Bertha (Grace Cirillo) is the housemaid who clearly knows more about the family and its interrelations than she’s telling.
The reappearance of George’s academic rival, Eilert Loevborg (Caleb James Williams) — a writer, recovered alcoholic and Hedda’s ex-lover — throws the newlyweds’ lives into disarray and reignites the trauma of prior emotional wounds.
Eilert has just published a bestseller in the same field as George. Its critical success makes the rival even more of a threat since George feels he’s also vying for the same professorship. Upon meeting Eilert anew, the couple discovers that he has no intention of competing for the job.
While this momentarily eases rubbed-rough feelings, Hedda’s jealousy for Eilert — from past experience — and for his new girlfriend, Thea Elvsted (Dayana Morales), implodes. One-time classmates, Hedda apparently despised Thea on campus. Adding fuel to this fiery situation is Judge Brack (John Dalton Logan), an unscrupulous family friend with a lascivious personality that is clearly directed at Hedda. She seems to spend considerable energy resisting — or is she?
A protracted battle over Eilert’s newer manuscript — dubbed by George as a certain success — sets the stage for ongoing troubles as the players bob and weave through situations that may seem innocent on the surface, but take an unfortunate turn.
The student players ramp up the emotion as the play nears its conclusion and Hedda’s whirling emotions spin out of control. When the lights go dark in an instant, there is scant time for relief.
FAU’s student actors tackled a tough psychological drama as the season’s first entry, and carried if off stylishly. Dawson portrayed Hedda as an imperfect, but tightly controlled woman overpowered by her unfulfilled expectations.
Focas portrays George 180 degrees the other way. Hard-working and family conscious, he tries to find positive options in all situations. Logan is a delightful guttersnipe as Judge Brack, who seems to enjoy meddling in other people’s affairs and messing with Hedda’s mind.
Williams’ portrayal of Loevborg smacks of disaster from the start. While we may forgive some of his transgressions, his appearance as a disheveled street soul late in the play solidifies our worst fears.
Grace Cirillo is savvy and strident as Bertha, and Frewen’s portrayal of Aunt Juju adds a hint of comic relief in a show that is weighted heavily with woe.
Hedda Gabler plays through Sunday in the Marleen Forkas Studio One Theater on FAU’s Boca Raton campus. Shows are at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets can be purchased at www.fauevents.com or by calling 561-297-6124.