Big laughs aren't the first thing I normally think of when I hear the name Hedda Gabler. But director Kimberly Senior and a terrific Writers Theatre cast, led by a delectably ferocious Kate Fry, mine unexpectedly rich veins of comedy in Ibsen's drama of domestic misery. It's there in Fry's seethingly sardonic characterization of Hedda, who's unhappily the new Mrs. Jørgen Tesman (Sean Fortunato). She might well take joy in her cutting disregard for her husband's busybody Aunt Julie (Barbara Figgins) or her timid neighbor Mrs. Elvsted (Chaon Cross), if she wasn't so invested in her mournfulness; you can see a smile playing at the corners of her mouth even as she tamps it down. There's comicality at Hedda's expense as well—watch the way she stiffens and recoils at Aunt Julie's embrace.
This isn't to say Senior and company have turned this drawing-room tragedy into a boulevard comedy. The bleak humor comes directly from the profoundly human passions of these characters, as burnished by Nicholas Rudall's tremendously expressive, speakable translation, first seen in 1984 at Chicago's Court Theatre. And finding these moments in a traditionally stolid portrait conversely deepens the calamitous turns as well. Observing the relaxed near jocularity of the banter when Hedda finally gets a moment alone with Judge Brack (deliciously played by Scott Parkinson to suggest a sort of omnisexual lecher with streaks both catty and bratty) intensifies the turn when Brack later asserts his power over her.
"Some power over another human being," as Hedda puts it, is what the play is all about. Hedda feels she has no agency over herself or anyone else in a society that has nothing to offer her; now that her father is dead and she's given in to the expectation to marry, she finds all eyes on her waiting for signs of pregnancy—the next step into giving in to suffocating domesticity.
It's the monstrousness of Hedda's actions when she finally, flailingly decides to claim power over another person's fate—that of her former flame, the unrestrained and brilliant Eilert Lovborg (Mark L. Montgomery)—that makes her infuriating and fascinating. In an extraordinary yet unadorned performance, Fry details this balance with breathtaking results: self-involved but lacking self-awareness, flinty but fleetingly vulnerable, her Hedda is coolly captivating, wearing her inscrutability like a cloak against her inability to control her own fate—until she does. Hedda Gabler Tesman may bore herself to death, but Fry's work, and Senior's intimate, intelligent staging, are packed with bracing life.