As prelude to the rather astonishing events that are about to ensue, the velvet voice of Dinah Washington fills the auditorium. "Things never are as bad as they seem," she purrs, "so dream, dream, dream." But in Henrik Ibsen's 1890 masterwork Hedda Gabler, which is being staged by Echo Theatre, things are indeed as bad as they seem and worse. General Gabler's narcissistic, bullying daughter Hedda is trapped in an absurdly foolish marriage and is apparently pregnant with a child she could only despise. The prospect of her straitjacket future is even bleaker than her already oppressive present.
Ibsen's story plays out like a round of high-stakes strip poker. There is constant bluffing and one-upmanship. The losers don't discard their clothes; they are forced to shed their illusions and vanities. As the play begins, Hedda and her myopic husband George have just returned from an extended six-month honeymoon. But for Hedda home is not where the heart is; it is the place where you finally have to stop moving and face stark reality. The reality is that she is bored beyond distraction. Her only interest is in manipulating others just as she too is capable of being manipulated.
With the sole exception of Berta the maid (Sally Eaton), everyone we meet is determined to dominate someone else. The insidious Judge Brack (Charles Barron) tries his sly hand at blackmail; George's adoring Aunt Julia (Donna Weinsting) insists on being the most important woman in his life. Even the bland, wispy Thea (Michelle Hand) has sought to sober up George's scholarly rival, the iconoclastic author Eilert Lovborg (Aaron Benedict). If Hedda is more "filled out" than the other characters, it's not only because she's beginning to show signs of her pregnancy but also because she is able to gaze at herself so unflinchingly.
Initially nothing is hurt by updating the play from nineteenth-century Norway to an American college town in 1955. In addition to getting to hear Dinah Washington, we sense the jealousies, both personal and professional, that proliferate throughout the stultifying "publish or perish" universe of academia. George and Hedda come off as precursors to George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he, a nonentity; she, the daughter of a doting daddy. But as the evening progresses, and we see dueling pistols that don't really look like dueling pistols and have to imagine a fire that never burns, Ibsen's specific universe begins to run counter to this university locale.
As staged (and designed) by Eric Little, there is never a sense that these people inhabit this world. The furniture may look 1950s, and the desk bust of a wild stallion may offer a telling metaphor, but the actors seem oblivious to both century and continent. The other problem is that only rarely does Kelly Schnider's title-role portrayal rise above the level of a reading. By the time the plot reaches its mind-blowing finale, we know little more about Hedda (apart from what we've heard in the lines) than we did at the outset. We hear her say, for instance, that she's "terrified of scandal," but we don't see, feel or believe it.
It's left to Terry Meddows as husband George, "the last of the simple souls," to bring the story to life. Meddows knows when to play into the lines and when to play against them. But when George Tesman is the most interesting character in Hedda Gabler, something is amiss.
Ibsen doesn't visit St. Louis often, and we can thank Echo for presenting this infrequently seen play. But hold on to your vine leaves: We'll get another shot at Hedda in November at Saint Louis University, another chance to probe the mind of one of the theater's most enigmatic icicles. Hedda might not be someone you'd want to live with, but she certainly warrants a repeat visit.