There is a scene in "Hedda Gabler," Henrik Ibsen's devastating play about one woman's 100-mile-an-hour drive toward destruction, that directors rarely manage to get just right.
It comes at the end of the third act, long after the title character has made up what is left of her mind to destroy everyone and everything of value in her reach. Hedda, in a calm sort of rage, tosses the manuscript of her former lover's best work into a stove and watches it burn with a childlike glee that can only be described as psychopathic.
In the Shaw Festival's riveting production of the play, which opened last week in the Court House Theatre with the spellbinding Moya O'Connell in the title role, director Martha Henry gives that moment the treatment it deserves. As O'Connell stares down into the glowing embers of the fire, knowing full well that she is plotting a course that will end only in death, the audience can tell by the chilling dialogue that this character is imagining horrible, unfathomable things.
As she stares down at the stove, the lights fade slowly to black, the glow intensifies and the crackle of the fire grows louder on the theater's sound system. This perfectly plotted crescendo of terror -- which elevates an already frightening scene to the stuff of nightmares -- eventually resolves itself into the notes of Saint-Saens' "Danse Macabre" being violently plunked out by Hedda on the piano. Though this may sound over-the-top on the page, in the theater it is perfect.
In this production, which uses a taut new adaptation by Richard Eyre, there is no chance to exhale, let alone to relax. It contains profoundly sensitive and emotionally raw performances from O'Connell, Jim Mezon, Gray Powell and Patrick McManus -- each one powerful enough to transport you out of the theater, out of Niagara-on-the-Lake, out of our time and place and into the twisted mind of one of the theater's most disturbing characters.
"Hedda Gabler" takes place in the grand drawing room of a house in 19th-century Copenhagen, where the devastatingly beautiful Hedda and her somewhat drippy academic husband George Tesman (McManus) have recently arrived after a long honeymoon. Hedda (or Mrs. Tesman, as she is loath to be known) is terminally unhappy and delights from the start in making others squirm. When her former lover Eilert Lovborg (Gray Powell) appears, she wastes no time in encouraging him to revert to his alcoholism and sets about ensuring that his budding relationship with the naive Mrs. Elvsted (Claire Jullien) ends in sorrow for everyone.
A special kind of ruination also awaits the bumbling Tesman, who suspends himself in a state of desperate optimism in a vain attempt to save himself from Hedda's unstoppable death spiral. He seems to have no idea what he's signed himself up for.
As Hedda, O'Connell somehow manages to be glacially chilly and incendiary at once, all while managing to punctuate her performance with dark flecks of humor. She is a fire into which we cannot help but stare. She meets her match in Jim Mezon, who, like O'Connell, also electrified crowds during the Shaw Festival's stunning production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" last year. He plays the devious Judge Brack, who has his own dark designs on Hedda, with a merciless intensity that wouldn't seem out of place in a Quentin Tarantino film.
Powell turns in his own expertly crafted performance as the sensitive Lovborg. In his eyes, you can read an animalistic kind of desperation -- a need for oblivion that O'Connell's character is all too happy to satisfy.
With Hedda, Ibsen planted the seed for many characters who have filtered into popular culture. She is the darker half of Jean Gray, the "X-Men" character whose power threatens to destroy everything around her. She is Mal, the destructive figment of Leonardo DiCaprio's subconscious in "Inception."
But right now, she is the swirling black hole at the center of "Hedda Gabler" at the Shaw Festival. And she is a sight to be seen.
4 stars (out of 4)
WHEN: Through Sept. 29
WHERE: Shaw Festival Court House Theatre, 26 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
TICKETS: $24 to $73
INFO: 800-511-7429 www.shawfest.com