Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Also see Richard's review of The History Boys
Hedda Gabler deals with the destructive actions of a woman trapped in a society which offers no sufficient outlet for her energies and ambitions. This theme was shocking when the play was new in 1890s Norway, but the basic conflict is hardly limited to that period or society. The Echo Theatre production, directed by Eric Little, is set in an American college town in 1955, during another period when many women felt caught between the role limitations imposed by society and their own ambitions and sense of self. It's an interesting concept but one which doesn't quite work in this production, partly because the analogy itself doesn't entirely hold up, and partly because the modernization is only half carried out. The actors must deliver an uneasy mixture of colloquial and formal speech, and the audience must overlook some glaring anachronisms in a production which otherwise aims for a realistic recreation of American life in the mid-1950s.
There's another odd thing going on in this production, and I'm not sure if it reflects insufficient rehearsal, nervousness on the part of the cast, or a directorial conceit. Ibsen's five acts are presented in the Echo Theatre production as two, separated by a fifteen-minute intermission. The acting styles in the first and second halves are so different that it almost has to reflect a deliberate choice, although to what end I am not sure. Such a production would not be unprecedented: Hedda Gabler has certainly seen its share of odd interpretations over the years, and the concept of deliberately shifting presentation styles over the course of the play has been done before. In the first (and much longer) act in this production the actors deliver their lines in a stiff and mannered style, as if they were still struggling with memorization rather than inhabiting their parts. The resulting performance is so painfully to endure that I would have left at the half had I not been obligated to remain to the bitter end in order to file this review. In the second half the actors adopt or settle into a more naturalistic acting style which brings the play to life and allows their talents to shine through.
Kelly Schnider plays Hedda as a sort of grownup Bad Seed, a sociopath who enjoys practicing cruelty to the point of destruction and death. Particularly in the first half, her Hedda is so lacking in redeeming characteristics, as well as so lacking in motivations for her actions, that I wondered why anyone would write a play about such a dull woman. Any sense of Hedda as a victim of society is lost in this production, and it is harder to accept that thesis in 1950s American (without denying the bland and conformist aspects of that period) than in 1890s Scandinavia. Schnider's characterization works best when Hedda's evil side is on naked display, as when she is terrorizing the innocent Thea (Michelle Hand); when she is merely rude, as she is with Aunt Julia (Donna Weinsting, who creates a sympathetic and well-rounded characterization), she is simply tedious and unattractive.
Charles Barron as Judge Brack creates a delightfully sly and insidious character who proves that he is Hedda's match and more when it comes to gaining advantage through exercise of his own evil talents. The production's most effective scenes involve these two, either in collaboration (as when they are making plans to cuckold Tesman) or in competition (as when Brack reveals information which he plans to use for blackmail).
Setting aside the first act performances, for the reason mentioned above, the other actors do a fine job fulfilling their roles. Terry Meddows plays George Tesman as an uninspired academic but a decent human blinded by infatuation with his glamorous wife, who basks in the adoration of his Aunt Julia and the family servant Berta (Sally Eaton). Michelle Hand as Thea strains credibility at times (was anyone ever that gullible?) but displays her considerable talents by portraying Thea's emotional growth over the course of the play. Aaron Benedict as Eilert Lovborg also becomes more convincing over the course of the play as the inspired genius with a self-destructive streak; however, his characterization is not aided by the fact that his voice and mannerisms frequently recall Truman Capote.
Director Eric Little also designed the set for this play, a realistic recreation of a living room from a modern American home of the 1950s, complete with shag carpeting, a sunburst mirror, and a fireplace with a peacock screen. The unit set and small stage create some awkward moments, as when Tesman and Thea come into the room declaring they need more space to work on their editing chores, then proceed to set up on a small side-table covered with knickknacks, and don't even bother to entirely clear it off. Since we know the house has an entire empty room for them to work in, it's obvious that the only reason for their moving to the living room is so they will be in view of the audience for the play's denouement.
The realistic 1950s setting also raises issues faced by any director choosing to set a play in a time and place other than the one it was written: what to adapt and what to leave alone? Failing to make consistent choices destroys the play's impact and leaves the audience wondering what is going on. For instance, why would anyone in 1950s American send an urgent message by mail instead of picking up the telephone? What university in that period would offer a professorship to someone on the basis of a slim volume purporting to discuss the entire history of the world? Why would an apparently modern home rely on a fireplace for heat: for all the discussions about how much money was spent getting the house ready, they didn't bother to install a modern heating system? And what are all those Scandinavians doing in 1950s America: if their speech can be translated, why not their names as well? That's the problem with taking plays out of their original setting, particularly in the case of realist dramas such as Hedda Gabler: once you start changing things, where do you stop?
Hedda Gabler will be performed through September 30 by the Echo Theatre Company at the Johnson Hall Theater in the Third Baptist Church. Ticket information is available by calling 314-225-4329 or from the company website at echotheatrecompany.org/boxoffice.html.
English version of Hedda Gabler by Doug Hughes
Director and Set Designer: Eric Little