The precise, geometric outline of the Steppenwolf Theatre production is immediately palpable in Neil Patel's spare scenic design: a blood-red cyclorama enveloping the forefront of a precisely balanced drawing room, sparsely furnished and dominated by the giant portrait of Hedda's father, Gen. Gabler.
And then, suddenly, we see Martha Plimpton's Hedda: dark eyes, chalk-white face, ramrod stiff in her beige gown, restlessly moving back and forth on the narrow walkway that juts out from the stage apron, finally hurrying off into the wings so that the play can begin.
She's a striking figure, her intense, edgy demeanor emphasized by the severe cut of the dresses that designer Catherine Zuber has fashioned for her. She's clearly bored and repressed in her marriage to the fussbudget professor George Tesman, her sex drive raging but unfulfilled. When she beckons with her hands to her innocent friend Mrs. Thea Elvsted, it's the spider coaxing the fly.
She's got plenty of hungers, although it's doubtful that even O'Neill would have given her the suggestion of lesbianism that Hughes interpolates into the action.
Her greatest need, however, emphasized in Hughes' English version of Henrik Ibsen's monumental drama of 1890, is to have complete power over someone else's life. She believes, briefly, that she has found that empowerment in her relationship with Eilert Lovborg, the writer with (in Ibsen's classic phrase) "vine leaves in his hair," who was once her lover and who now has ceased his Dinoysian excesses and settled down in a partnership with the good and faithful Mrs. Elvsted.
When she ultimately fails to gain control, Hedda is instead left powerless, a pawn in the hands of another, sinister man. And once that happens, it's the end of her.
Despite its contemporary relevance, Ibsen's story comes to us with the conventions of morality and theatricality of Ibsen's time, which in our day and age can produce snickers instead of gasps from an audience.
Hughes' solution to this is to strip the play of the trappings of 19th Century realism and to stage it in an almost pure setting. Instead of a realistic fireplace for Hedda to use in the play's most shocking scene, he invents, strikingly, a sacrificial altar that seems to come out of nowhere.
David Van Tieghem's pounding music and Michael Chybowski's lighting, producing both shadows and blinding climaxes, further bring the drama into the theater of the 21st Century.
However formal the pacing and presentation, the acting of the play is deeply realistic. Plimpton, clear and powerful, could have played Hedda with a little more neuroticism, as a kind of kittenish Bette Davis. But her supporting cast is well-nigh flawless.
This includes Brigid Duffy as the Tesmans' meek maid; Jane Galloway Heitz as George Tesman's kindly, stolid aunt; Amy J. Carle, as the darkly beautiful Mrs. Elvsted; Tim Hopper as the volcanic, long-haired Lovorg; Matthew Sussman, impeccable as the thick, doggedly devoted Tesman, and, above all, Tom Irwin, in a perfectly calculated, beautifully controlled portrayal of Judge Brack, the genial, evil man who wants to be (in another classic Ibsen phrase) "cock of the walk."