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Understanding the cruel, witty and profoundly alluring Hedda Gabler

Cara Ricketts is is the latest actress to take on the role of Hedda Gabler, joining a long line of eminent performers.

Dahlia Katz

Hedda Gabler isn't nice – and she'd be the first to challenge any expectation that she should be.

Her cruelty can be astonishing, but it's also profoundly alluring. Throughout the action of Henrik Ibsen's 1891 play, Hedda sharpens her tongue and hones her meanness. It starts in the realm of the petty – she makes fun of an old lady's hat – and ends in a sinister head to head with her novelist ex-boyfriend. Handing Eilert Lovborg a pistol, she tells him he has nothing left to live for: His life has been a waste of talent, a waste of time, and the only noble choice remaining is to end it.

"What? You don't do that to your ex-boyfriends?" Cara Ricketts asks me.

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We laugh. It's a laugh that starts in earnest then, slowly, becomes a little more wry.

Ricketts is the latest actress to take on the role of Hedda, joining a long line of eminent performers (it has been on Broadway at least 20 times) that includes Ingrid Bergman, Cate Blanchett and Canadian Seana McKenna.

Hedda may be jealous, narcissistic and self-involved, but she is also sly, witty and bursting with repressed passion. For more than a century, audiences have been unable to resist the magnetism of her extremes.

As Ricketts and I start to talk about Hedda Gabler's most propulsive themes, her joke feels increasingly telling. We all know the urge to exhort someone to heights of moral, romantic or artistic purity – heights that we ourselves, perhaps, are too pragmatic or cowardly to attempt. Hedda's disappointment is uncomfortably familiar; her theatrical yearning and brutal manipulation can feel like a stark reveal of impulses we repress.

And then the question of Hedda's cruelty is tied to the juncture of her gender and era. Vicarious heights were, in many ways, the only ones available to women in late-19th-century Norway, and Hedda Gabler is frequently positioned inside a related feminist discourse.

But Ibsen doesn't seem to want to let Hedda off the hook that easily. The play comes with a built-in example of a woman who breaks bond with convention; Hedda's childhood friend Thea Elvsted leaves her husband and kids to follow the man she loves, providing a hypothetical alternative to Hedda's often self-perpetuated unhappiness. Ibsen was also writing under the shadow of his earlier 1879 play A Doll's House. Nora doesn't have half of Hedda's intelligence or verve, but she is the one who acts on her misery and takes off.

For director Jennifer Tarver, it's the notion of vicarious lives and false narratives that makes Hedda Gabler so rich and relevant to a contemporary audience. "The play starts just as Hedda and her husband are back from their six-month honeymoon. They return to an extravagant house and this very high-profile life and both of them have a moment of complete freakout – both of them, in different ways, go, 'Oh my god, what have I done.'"

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The moment speaks to what Tarver calls a current epidemic of willful blindness people making both personal and political decisions with semi-open eyes, then waking up one morning and finding themselves lost in their own constructions. She suggests that the phenomenon is exacerbated in the age of the selfie, with the constant performing and idealization of our experience. It's almost a kind of disembodiment, in which the gulf between our physical realities and imagined selves becomes wider and wider. It's exactly what happens to Hedda.

"Hedda tries to find dignity and self-expression under conditions that don't allow for that. Her distorted behaviour is a result of something very human, which is why, I think, if you really follow the psychological thread of her actions, it becomes extremely logical and hopefully something people can relate to," Tarver says.

She won't deny that Hedda can be nasty, but she maintains that, for the play to work, it's crucial that we empathize with her. "We need to tap into her frustrations, her sense of being trapped and limited and having no access to a world in which human action has no consequence."

The production has been modernized and set in the 1950s, an era that Tarver has chosen for several reasons. The first is the way it underscores the tension between fantasy and reality. "In art, television, advertising, I think the fifties is the most recent decade in our collective memory in which the veneer of society was at its most idealistic."

Another reason is the 1950s sense of being hermetically sealed. One of the play's key themes is the relationship between the present time and the future. (The artist character Eilert Lovborg is writing a novel that is half futuristic utopia – it's the novel that Hedda so symbolically burns.) The inconceivability of what lies ahead is part of what fuels Hedda's feelings of entrapment. "When the sixties exploded, it was something that, in the early fifties, no one could have dreamed of."

Then the fifties offer different implications in terms of Hedda's psychological predicament, placing her on the cusp of feminism's second wave instead of its first. Tarver has chosen American playwright Jon Robin Baitz's 2002 adaptation partly for this reason.

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"The way in which Hedda is sexualized by men through language is much more intense [in Baitz's adaptation]. He brings a real vibrancy and contemporary flow to the text – it's one of the most accessible translations out there and enhances certain themes, both of blindness and the sexualization of women."

Ricketts agrees that the sophistication of Baitz's adaptation makes tackling such an iconic role less daunting. "One of the challenges is that everyone has such a preconceived idea of who Hedda is."

She has found that Baitz's words construct their own emotional momentum, helping her find her way. "At no point do I have to go, 'Okay, this is the moment that I'm going to cry,' because I'm already there," she explains. "I love playing moments like that, when all I need is to be available and then the text does all the work."

Moreover, Ricketts feels a deep affinity for Hedda's narrative of disappointments. "We can all understand that, can't we? Hedda keeps settling, she keeps changing her expectations, accepting less and less – but when have you given up too much?"

Does Ricketts identify with Hedda's desperation to project herself into parallel lives?

"Definitely," she tells me. "It's like the Facebook tendency of staging a bunch of perfects selfies, then not posting them all at once so that you don't seem boring even though you're bored out of your mind. It's so Hedda Gabler!"

She pauses. "I mean, I'm not saying I do that."

We share another wry laugh.

Hedda Gabler runs from Jan. 12 to Feb. 7 at Canadian Stage in Toronto.

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