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YOU CAN go to a lot of "Hedda Gabler"s and still remain puzzled as to what she has in mind. You can be sure it's not nothing. There is too much desperation and malice and deliberation and too much drive, wherever it comes from, to reach some unattainable goal for it to be casual mischief.

Events themselves, no matter how startling they may be, can be explained. But how to explain Hedda Gabler's role in them, her motives? What's eating her?

Theories there are of course. Tons of them. Henrik Ibsen is looked upon as the father of modern theater, and this is one of his important plays, a classic from 1890. But theories won't do. Only a performance can do the work of clearing away our puzzlement. Answers, even if they can't be articulated, lie in the performance. They are sensed, or simply felt.

The performance by the Buffalo Ensemble Theatre is a cautious, respectful reading of the play, directed with smooth assurance by Nancy N. Doherty. Supporting roles are strong, and at least one is much more than that. Sandra Walter as Hedda Gabler looks lovely and commanding. Her performance is clear and crafted but leaves a few too many doubts for us to grapple with.

To put this in perspective: This is a small company working with slender resources and yet it is a creditable, even noble, production that stands comparison to ones by bigger and richer theaters.

Ibsen is notably difficult to get right, and Hedda Gabler is his most difficult female role to make good sense of. She is more nearly like Hamlet in that she obviously is in the grip of something, but what that is is not at all obvious or easy to achieve.

What Hedda Gabler, newly married to a professorial candidate, George Tesman, does is scorn and mock the good and decent people in her life, flirt with a predatory power figure in the town, deceive an old school friend, set on the road to ruin a brilliant, troubled writer she may have once loved.

At times she half-talks to herself as though she were only half in the life she is living. Events move from the morning of one day, to the afternoon, to the evening, to early morning the next day, to late afternoon. In this short span there is one natural death, one pitifully absurd death, one suicide.

Sandra Walter appears to seize on this half-in and half-out state of Hedda Gabler as a means to place her insincerity in the foreground. But a fall-out of this approach is that it leads to a very self-conscious performance that far too often seems to be observing itself.

This creates moments of comedy that the play can handle. Yet it leaves us no more enlightened as to why Hedda Gabler does what she does. Or if not enlightened, then simply convinced that she may know what she is doing moment by moment, or missing that, must feel compelled to conduct events in such a way to produce this domestic disaster whether she has any idea why or not.

Ibsen created a series of woman characters who chafed against the bonds of family, marriage, society. Hedda Gabler wants excitement, she wants freedom, but all she can feel is boredom. Deep within she cries out for the beautiful gesture, big, bold and courageous enough to shatter the deadly embrace of middle-class society. It must be grand enough to vault everyone's consciousness to a new level.

She can't bring herself to perform the gesture, so she conspires to bring it about in someone else. The failure is tragi-comic. That is one way to take in the play, if only Walter's Hedda weren't so self-conscious. What must be, in this reading, deeply-rooted compulsion comes to seem too like comic petulance.

Strong support is provided by Nan Wade as Tesman's fond aunt; Amybeth Whissel as the old school friend; Roger Keicher as Eilert Loevborg, the brilliant and doomed writer; Philip Knoerzer as the powerful man forcing himself on Hedda. Very strong support comes from John Warren, who leaves one in no doubt about the character of Tesman. The maid is played by Juanita Scibetta Evans.

Hedda Gabler

Rating:*** 1/2 Classic drama by Henrik Ibsen about events that swirl around Hedda Gabler, her husband, and a brilliant alcoholic writer. Directed by Nancy Doherty for the Buffalo Ensemble Theatre, featuring Sandra Walter, Roger Keicher, John Warren, Phil Knoerzer, Amybeth Whissle, Nan Wade and Juanita Scibetta Evans. Performances Thursdays to Sat urdays at 8 through April 18 at the New Phoenix Theatre, 95 N. Johnson Park (855-2225).

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