Two powerful plays from celebrated dramatists opened in Sacramento this week Henrik Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler" at Capital Stage and Neil Simon's "The Gingerbread Lady" at the New Helvetia Theatre. Both feature compelling but flawed female protagonists.
The Bee spoke with Capital Stage artistic director Stephanie Gularte, who plays Hedda Gabler, and Jamie Jones, who plays Evy Meara for New Helvetia, about their approaches to their troubled, tragic yet humanistic characters.
"Hedda Gabler" will be a sort of curtain call for Gularte.
After starring in Ibsen's play about marriage, jealousy, power and ambition, Gularte has announced, she is stepping down as the company's artistic director. (A national search for her replacement has begun.) While she's not planning to perform next year with Cap Stage, she will still direct.
Capital Stage gives "Hedda Gabler," which was first published in 1890, a contemporary currency. How did this adaptation come about?
The "Hedda" adaptation started about September of last year with us doing a reading of an early translation, which is very, very true to the original Ibsen.
At the table with the (Capital Stage) co-founders (Peter Mohrmann and Jonathan Rhys Williams) and Janis (Stevens, the director) we started talking about "Why are we doing this play? What is it about this story that is relevant to us? Why do we think it's still an important play?"
I set to work on that early translation with these ideas in mind, and by the time we got to rehearsals, we were on our third draft.
Now in the rehearsal room it's an open conversation every day that we want to make sure that we're not parting dramatically from Ibsen's work.
In fact, the arc and the scenes are constructed exactly the same way, but what we make sure is that the dialogue feels natural and comfortable coming out of our mouths, that we can live and breathe in this dialogue. We've removed things that put it in a very specific location, or things that feel like its a specific time.
That's what you can do when the writer is no longer alive, right?
It's an interesting thing, because we mostly do contemporary works at Cap Stage, and I am a purist. Not just because we have to do it for licensing purposes, but (because that's) what the playwright has written, (so) that's what you do.
If you don't like that particular word, that's still the word you have to live with, so it's a very different thing when you start stepping back and saying, "Well, I don't know if I'd say 'the' there," or whatever it is.
I wouldn't want to live this way with every play because there's a lot to the process of figuring out why a playwright said things in a very specific way and why they constructed things in the way that they have. But there's great freedom and excitement in doing what we're doing.
Is playing Hedda something you've always wanted to do?
Hedda is one of the roles (that) if you're an actress, it comes up for you in one way or another. It looms as this great challenge.
I don't know that I would have, frankly, had the courage, to use a Hedda word, to undertake it if not for the real encouragement from my artistic associates, who've been suggesting we do this play for the last four seasons.
You could say I've been thinking about it for the last four years and decided not to do it for three of the last four years.
It was a fitting piece for our season of power plays in that we wanted to be able to take a personal story around the idea of the search for power, so it was a good time to put it in the season. But I had to be talked into the idea of taking her (on) a little bit. She's a little intimidating.
Neil Simon's 1970 "The Gingerbread Lady" is a dark dramatic comedy from the playwright known for brighter fare.
Highly regarded Sacramento-based actress Jones takes on the titular role, playing Evy Meara, a cabaret singer whose alcoholism has affected her career, health and relationships.
Jones, a longtime member of the B Street Theatre acting company, was recently a part of the award-winning Aurora Theatre ensemble production of Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance," which Albee himself saw at the Berkeley theater and praised.
As an actress, what do you look for in a play?
Well, with this piece, I knew the play. I'd seen the film. I knew of it. I actually did a scene from it when I was 20 years old at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts as a way-too-young person doing something I was really drawn to.
If (a) character is likable in whatever way, that really means (something). I suppose they can be a despicable person, but if there's something really interesting about that character or that play or that story, it's seductive.
I hear actors talk about "not playing the ending," or telegraphing your knowledge of the denouement. What are your thoughts on that?
It is all about discovery; being in the moment, which is another theater thing you hear all the time; working from moment to moment so it all adds up to that arc or trajectory whatever you want to call that thing so it will finally land at the end.
I also think there's something really interesting about the rehearsal process and actually going to the end of the play and looking back from that point of view. You can reverse-engineer that for yourself.
That's something I like to do if I'm stuck. Playing the end is something you never really want to do, though. It's like showing your cards, I guess.
Do you bring the process home to your husband (actor Michael Stevenson)?
I think you kind of can't help some of it. The thing that I really count on him for, especially in this heavy kind of play, is just to run lines with me.
I'm a person who doesn't really do well with the recorded thing where you record a line and leave space. I really need somebody to do that with me.
In that regard I bring it home, but not necessarily the "I'm becoming an alcoholic and coming out of detox and failing" (part). Hopefully I don't do that.
What: Capital Stage presents an original adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's play directed by Janis Stevens, with Stephanie Gularte, Jonathan Rhys Williams and Peter Mohrmann.
Where: Capital Stage, 2215 J St., Sacramento
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays, through June 16
Tickets: Preview: $18; opening night $35; general: $24-$35. Student-rush tickets are half-price; Senior Sunday matinee tickets are $28.
Information: (916) 995-5464, www.capstage.org
THE GINGERBREAD LADY
What: New Helvetia Theatre presents a limited engage- ment of Neil Simon's play, with Jamie Jones and Matt K. Miller.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays- Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays (with a special 2 p.m. show May 25, a Saturday); through May 26.
Where: New Helvetia Theatre, 1028 R St., Sacramento
Tickets: $20 and $30
Information: (916) 469-9850 or www.newhelvetia.org
Call The Bee's Call The Bee's Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.