Hedda Gabler is one tough cookie to love. Heck, let's set the bar lower: She's tough to like.
Keep in mind I'm talking about the title character of Henrik Ibsen's play, not the current production at Mad Cow Theatre in which there's plenty to like.
Ibsen wrote "Hedda Gabler" in 1890 and his protagonist — imperious, willful Hedda — caused a stir in the straitlaced society of the time. Some deemed her a proto-feminist because of her insistence on creating a life she wanted instead of deferring to the men around her.
In Mad Cow's take, directed by Eric Zivot, Hedda seems less driven by a notion of female empowerment and more fueled by selfish anger. But it's not always clear what her anger is about.
A dramatic staging — the action takes place in the center of the audience on a narrow strip of floor — creates a claustrophobic physical feeling. But Zivot's actors don't always convey the emotional confinement that the era's gender roles must have inflicted on Hedda. And he allows Sara Humbert as a surly maid to take her comedy too far; her obvious insubordination undercuts the notion that women of the time lacked a way to express themselves.
As Hedda, Melanie Whipple puts a dash of Scarlett O'Hara in her character: Barking orders one minute, turning on the charm next. Her Hedda seems more impetuous than manipulative. But Whipple has the knack of letting the audience see her brain at work; there's always some reason to be watching her face, trying to deduce what's happening behind her bright eyes.
Though she starts off as simply mean, as her machinations increase to lies, theft, pushing an alcoholic off the wagon and more, Whipple's words take on a darker tone.
She makes the characters around her more likeable: Robb Ross, never overdoing his character's nebbishness, is more sympathetic than any bookish bore should be. Emily Killian's simple Mrs. Elvsted triggers a desire to pat her softly on the head and murmur "There, there." Mikki Scanlon Kriekard's Aunt Julia, fretting about her sick sister and nattering obliquely about pregnancy, is equally appealing.
Mark Lainer has the right touch of unnerving smarm as Judge Brack. And Steven Lane creates a riveting portrait of a man crushed by forces and motives that leave him both bewildered and broken. In a sea of great performances, it's a knock-out.
• What: A Mad Cow Theatre production of the Henrik Ibsen play
• Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 105 S. Magnolia Ave., Orlando
• When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, extra performance at 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 7; through March 25
• Tickets: $29; $27 students; pay what you wish on March 7
• Call: 407-297-8788
• Online: Madcowtheatre.comCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times