by Cary M. Mazer

Hedda Gabler

Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. Second St., through March 8, 922-8900

It might be useful to think of Hedda Gabler as a feminist play.

If you don't, you're likely to think of the title character of Henrik Ibsen's play as little more than a bitch in a bustle.

Hedda Gabler (in a translation by Douglas Hughes) is currently being given a splendid revival at the Arden under the direction of Terrence J. Nolen. Like Nolen's Death of a Salesman last season, the production is notable for its fluid staging, its finely tuned dramatic tone, and its solid company drawn from some of the region's top actors, excellent from top to bottom. And it features an impressive performance by Grace Gonglewski in the title role (well, not the title role; her name is Hedda Tesman, now that she's married).

It might, for example, be useful to think of Hedda's debilitating boredom as the direct result of her having been trained by her father to be completely ornamental. Now past her marriage-market prime ("like a bouquet after the ball''), she has little to do with herself but marry a boring history scholar (Greg Wood), live in a house that she only pretended to want, pass the time with a lecherous local judge (Tom Teti) to whom her eager-to-please husband is now deeply in debt, and play with her late father's dueling pistols.

How else could you account for her withering sarcasm, her open contempt for her oblivious husband, and the petty insults she levels at her husband's kindly aunt (Joan Stanley)? How else to account for her crippling envy of her old school acquaintance Thea (Susan McKey), who unlike Hedda had the courage to leave her loveless marriage to serve as muse and guardian angel to the brilliant but profligate intellectual Eilert Lovborg (Eric Hissom)? Bound in as Hedda is by the literal and figurative corsets of the day, it's easy to understand how, years before, she had been eager to live vicariously, channeling her libido into listening to Lovborg's tales of his debaucheries, while at the same time too terrified of her own sexual desires to respond to his overtures.

But for all that, it's still hard to explain the degree to which Hedda's boredom, envy and cowardice - all, arguably, socially conditioned - turn to malice and destructiveness, beginning with her challenge to the recovering alcoholic Lovborg to take a single cup of punch, and ending with symbolic baby-killing and actual assisted suicide. This is where sociology ends and psychopathology begins. And it is soon clear that this is the path that Nolen and Gonglewski have taken in accounting for the character.

An added sequence at the very beginning of the performance tells us just how upset Hedda is that she is pregnant (later on, when she is fiddling with one of the pistols, she casually rests its muzzle on her belly).

Something is going on behind Hedda's broad forehead and inside of her silvery satin frock (the splendid costumes are by Marla Jurglanis), something that is never altogether clear to the audience: a determined look that rises like steam from behind Gonglewski's eyes when Hedda suddenly decides to insult the Aunt's hat, to trap Thea in her house, or to send Lovborg to his glorious end.

Whatever these secret sources are that Grace Gonglewski has found for her character's pathology, the result is that Hedda's destructiveness becomes the most vivid aspect of the character - more vivid than her boredom, more vivid than her panic over being pregnant, and much more vivid than her desire to experience beauty and courage, if only vicariously - a desire, manifest in her Dionysian image of Lovborg "with vine leaves in his hair,'' that leads her to send him to his death.

And since this vicarious desire for beauty ultimately leads to Hedda's own entrapment and to the play's tragic conclusion, the production, in its final moments, begins to lose some of its momentum. Rather than crashing and burning as she careens into reality like a speeding car hitting a lamppost, Hedda instead merely dwindles into a moral pygmy.

Tom Teti plays the unctuously priapic Judge Brack to perfection. And Greg Wood is terrific as Tesman, irresistibly winning in his befuddlement and basic decency, while at the same time hobbled with a competitive streak, quietly consumed with envy for Lovborg, his professional rival and intellectual superior.

To see Tesman's envy of Lovborg melt into admiration and sheer awe is to understand, by contrast, precisely how crippled Hedda is. I may not have entirely bought Nolen's choices regarding Gonglewski's interpretation of her role, but the performance he got out of Wood and the light it sheds on the play reveal just how firm is this director's grasp of the play's intricacies and profundities.