Regional Reviews: St. Louis
That was only last year, at the Tower Grove Abbey.
And, in what should by now be a familiarly dark meta-twist, Stray Dog Theatre has put Ms. Angeli, and the same four supporting cast members from A Doll's House with her, into Hedda Gabler, which is of course almost the exact opposite sort of play. If it were done chronologically (Hedda from 1891, and then Doll's House from 1897 played after that), there'd be a sense of uplift. Here, the order reversed, we savor a deliciously Scandinavian sense of despair that this erstwhile Nora was ever tempted back. But it's an even grander bookend as a result: moments of high drama burn into our memories here, the burning of a book, staged and lit in the style of 19th Century illustrator Walter Paget; and the horrific bullying of one woman by another. Or the subtle manipulation by a man wielding power over a desperate woman.
Once again under the direction of Artistic Director Gary F. Bell, Ms. Angeli strides in, down the other aisle, on the other side of the house, out of the St. Louis heat and humidity, in her big Norwegian satiny morning gown. Like Hedda, we yearn for complete control over another person's destiny, and want to urge her against it all. It is, after all, a play about control, and how men of power make victims of those around them, even when they're not outright abusive. But it's also about whether a woman can turn it all around and throw it right back in our faces, as a gender. And, like A Doll's House, it's also about a shocking kind of escape, that blind-sides the world around her.
Hedda Gabler is one of the earliest of all modern dramas, and it should be guaranteed the same audience as last year's production, along with much the same castevery word, every line, is a brick in the wall that will seal off Hedda's fate; every attempt at controlling events only dooms her more. It's brilliantly dark, and the invisible hand of God or Henrik Ibsen pushes her down, harder and harder, every time she tries to hurt or control others. It's horribly pleasing, or satisfying, coming from the 1890sa decade that gave us psychoanalysis and plays about female self-determination, like Mrs. Warren's Profession.
That same faint smile, endlessly forgiving and understanding in A Doll's House, is turned to remote psychopathy here. But her Helmer, last year, actor Ben Ritchie (Ms. Angeli's real life husband), is far different as Tesman, Hedda's clueless, nebbishy spouse. As aloof as he was in A Doll's House, and as mystically sexy as he was in The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler in 2015 for St. Louis Shakespeare, Mr. Ritchie is bookish and (largely) hapless this time out. Hedda insists that a conversational misstep brought them both to this point, married and in way too much house for so young a couple.
But, testing her own limits as an adult, she finds she likes grandeur, likes the way she can intimidate, and brushes off all the costs (in this country, she could run for president). There is no conversation about her father's boots in this almost breezy 2001 translation by Jon Robin Baitz. And the painting of "the General" is only implied, in an empty frame. Yet this Hedda seems a study of an alienated child who grew up, bemused and just slightly resentful of the rest of us, in our non-military lassitude. In this latest iteration, she seems blasted to Mars by a distant, fatherly god of war. And in this version, with this sensitive director, she's come back for vengeance.
Rachel Hanks is great as another one of Ibsen's desperate out-of-town visitors, as Theá here (Kristine Linde in 2017's A Doll's House). And her nervous, provincial earnestness explodes into gripping hysteria when the story is pushed to its incredible heights. John Reidy surprisingly avoids melodrama in closing a web around them all, even in his black hat and cape. He is merely charming and seemingly kind, quite an achievement given the underpinnings of the story. And Stephen Pierick is Løvborg, first sober and smoldering, and later shaken and desperate and ruined. Every writer should see this show, every chance they get, for its economy and startling crises: jutting like the Dolomites (a honeymoon destination not mentioned in this version). Ibsen, however, still seems to know what we are thinking, and always three steps ahead.
There's a fine, rare appearance from Suzanne Greenwald (as Tesman's childhood maid), and she and confident Jan Niehoff (as his missionary-spirited maiden aunt) set the stage for the young couple, who are slowly rising from their honeymoon abroad at the outset. It's hard to believe it all takes place in a 24-hour span. But not so hard to believe that people will always see and hear as they please.
Hedda Gabler, through June 23, 2018, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave., St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.straydogtheatre.org
The Cast (in order of appearance):