To New York theatre audiences, Mary-Louise Parker is a now kinda gal. Her signature stage roles have either placed her on equal temporal footing with us (Craig Lucas' Prelude to a Kiss, David Auburn's Proof) or in the recent past (Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive). Using her Gotham résumé alone as a yardstick, one would assume that her next job, the title role in Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, would be a stretch. But one would be wrong.
"I spent a lot of years in a corset, actually," the Tony-winning, 44-year-old New Yorker comments dryly. In fact, one of the first roles she encountered in drama school was the ultimate Ibsen heroine, Nora in A Doll's House. From then on, she hit the regions, tackling assignments in Molière, Coward, Jacobean dramas, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. What's more, she has long known that the restless, scheming, gun-loving Hedda would be part of her future.
"People have been asking me to do this play for quite a long time," she says in the curious, kittenish cadences familiar to her followers, "and it never quite felt like the right time. I never felt inspired by it. I was leaning toward Doll's House for a while. And then [Roundabout Theatre Company artistic director] Todd Haimes suggested Ian Rickson. Things just sort of snowballed after that."
Ian Rickson is the British director who scored a distinct critical hit this fall with his rendition of Ibsen contemporary Anton Chekhov's The Seagull. "Mary-Louise has an amazing vitality onstage," says Rickson of his Hedda. "She manages to be both unsentimental and moving, uncompromising and open. I love how she combines her fierce intelligence with something raw, physical and sensuous."
Hedda Gabler, which first premiered in 1891 in Germany, tells the story of a capricious, intelligent, unhappily married woman whose inability to choose between a questing, brave existence (her heart's desire) and one of safe, respectable conformity (her mind's choice) leads to a tragic outcome. In recent years it has become a favorite entry in the Ibsen canon, taken up by such actresses as Kate Burton, Cate Blanchett, Annette Bening, Eve Best and Elizabeth Marvel, and dissected by playwrights Jeff Whitty (The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler) and Elizabeth Meriwether (Heddatron).
What modern resonances those artists found in the century-old work varied, but Parker is determined to find fresh meaning of her own. "Ian and I want it to not have a classical feeling to it, where the first ten minutes are all exposition with people bustling around holding oil lamps and moving footstools," she says, succinctly encapsulating the average American theatregoer's general impression of period drama. "All those things may happen, but hopefully they happen in a contemporary way. And that doesn't mean that I feel the characters should be holding cell phones. You just want to infuse a classical play with something new. I like the idea of trying to make it a play where, if someone was dragged to it by their wife or something, they wouldn't feel like they were watching an old play, and felt engaged by it. It was vivid and bracing when Ibsen did it, and I think it should be all those things now."
Both actress and director worked closely with playwright Christopher Shinn, who is adapting the play, offering suggestions and feedback to ensure that whatever cobwebs the script has accumulated over the decades were blown away. In the weeks before beginning rehearsals, Parker liked to comb over a raw word-for-word translation of the text in an effort to glean the soul of the work.
"I think over time the play has sort of devolved," she says. "If you go back to the literal translation, some things do feel more shocking. It feels like, when the play was translated, it was softened a bit here and there. I have lots of translations here in my house. I think Shinn's translation is getting back to the original. He's trying to be true to Ibsen, while still having some freedom."
As the mother of two children, William and Aberash, Parker has less freedom now than she once did. The combined demands of motherhood and her ongoing Showtime series, "Weeds," have constricted her ability to seize stage opportunities. "It precludes my doing lots of other work in the downtime," she explains. "There are things that I've been offered in my hiatus that three years ago I would have been so happy to do. But you don't want to take them out of school. I have to be very choosy. When you do a play, it's like being married for a short period of time and you want to make sure it's something you can commit to."
Parker need not worry that the stage offers will dry up, however. Many critics routinely point to her as one of the leading dramatic actresses of the day. When this is mentioned, the actress seems shyly grateful for the compliment, but also wary of its worth. "I tend to be someone who remembers the insults more. But too much input either way is dangerous. When you're doing a play, reviews that are too good can really hurt you as much as the ones that are evil."