WELLFLEET — If you’re a small band of actors launching a theater company and looking to make a statement about your willingness to embrace challenges, there’s a certain logic to the choice of “Hedda Gabler’’ as a curtain-raiser.
Sure, the play is familiar, even canonical. But Henrik Ibsen’s 1890 drama continues to pose questions that defy easy answers. Even now, “Hedda Gabler’’ — like its mysterious title character — retains its power to provoke and unsettle.
Still, none of that guaranteed that Brenda Withers would deliver one of the must-see performances of the year in the Harbor Stage Company’s inaugural production. But that is exactly what she does. Under the direction of Robert Kropf, Withers conjures a hypnotic Hedda, one who freezes the blood and pierces the heart, commanding our fascinated attention while remaining ultimately unknowable.
In addition to Withers, “Hedda Gabler’’ showcases four other founding members of Harbor Stage Company. Kropf plays the dissolute, haunted Eilert Lovborg, the grand passion of Hedda’s life. Jonathan Fielding portrays George Tesman, the insipid academic who marries Hedda, only to find himself with a caged tiger on his hands. Lewis D. Wheeler is the canny and manipulative Judge Brack, ever on the lookout for a way to exert his will over Hedda, while Stacy Fischer plays the seemingly mousy Mrs. Elvsted, who supplants Hedda as Lovborg’s muse.
These performers are all first-rate, but then, you’d expect them to be. This is some blue-chip theater talent, and for 20 bucks a ticket you can see them tackle a classic while demonstrating what is possible when a disciplined ensemble is clicking on all cylinders. The whole enterprise has labor of love written all over it.
It adds up to an exciting debut for the company, which is positioning itself as an adventurous alternative to Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater. The founders, all WHAT alumni, took over the small waterfront space earlier this year after the landlord declined to renew WHAT’s lease on its second stage.
It’s evident that the Harbor Stage team is still learning how to navigate the tiny theater. In one key scene, Hedda is being shown a book that Lovborg has written. It’s an emotionally fraught moment, but most of the audience cannot see Hedda’s expression: Other characters impede our view.
That’s an atypical hiccup in a production that is otherwise expertly executed and creatively imagined, while remaining faithful to Ibsen, right down to its period garb (by Daniel Kozar) and a set (by Kropf and Ji-Youn Chang) whose bland furnishings create a faintly claustrophobic air, subtly reinforcing the sense that Hedda is chafing against her surroundings.
There’s an ambiguity and an apartness to this Hedda from the start. Hand on hip, she seems to be waiting for something or someone as she stands, dissatisfied and restless, in the living room of the home she shares with Tesman. Hedda’s smile never reaches her eyes; her laugh is similarly devoid of mirth. After Judge Brack coyly comments on the newlywed’s love for her husband, she demands that he not use “that nauseating word.’’
When Lovborg turns up, though, we see that the word does have meaning for Hedda. She has idealized Lovborg (she imagines him with “vine leaves in his hair’’), but not in a way that is remotely submissive. Quite the opposite, in fact. Lovborg is on the wagon, but, in a chilling scene, Hedda makes sure he falls off it.
Yet this duo is made for each other in their way, each craving freedom and preferring to operate on the principle that life is lived most fully at the extremes. Hedda, especially, is all too willing to act on that belief, and it costs her dearly. Her downfall is not an occasion for rejoicing, though; for all her misdeeds, we recognize her desperate desire to escape the suffocation of the spirit.
Kropf, who adapted Brian Johnston’s translation, has fashioned a very brief and very effective coda for Harbor Stage’s “Hedda Gabler.’’ It allows Hedda to have the last word. Fittingly, there’s a trace of defiance in that utterance, as if she’s toying with the audience one final time.