REVIEW: WTF’s disappointing ‘Ghosts’ lacks drama
By Henrik Ibsen, translated by Paul Walsh
Directed by Carey Perloff
At least Williamstown Theatre Festival aspired to something different in its disappointing, ultimately lifeless production of Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts.” It would be folly to try to replicate director Richard Eyre’s electric Almeida Theatre production with a defining lead performance by Lesley Manville that visited BAM back in 2014. Still, WTF has invested fully in looking anew at the Ibsen landmark with a new translation of the Norwegian (originally commissioned for American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco), a new music score performed live and a movie-marquee name in the lead role.
The setting is a Norwegian country estate in the late 19th century. Mrs. Helene Alving (Uma Thurman) is ready to finally release herself from the vestiges of a miserable marriage to her philandering husband, who’s been dead for several years, by divesting fully his estate in a home for orphans. A visit from Pastor Manders (Bernard White), who manages her affairs, and the return after many years of her artist-Bohemian son, Oswald (Tom Pecinka), resurrects old sins of her husband. Regina Engstrand (Catherine Combs), Helene’s faithful young maid, and her estranged father, Jakob (Thom Sesma), share a history that, when revealed, complicates Helene’s attempt to extricate herself from the past.
Regarded as radical when first produced in the 1880s, “Ghosts” deals with incest, sexual disease, infidelity, women’s rights and euthanasia. Besides commenting on the hypocrisy of bourgeois morality, Ibsen—through a complex, pre-Freudian psychological portrait of Helene—asks: Can the truth set one free? Sadly, WTF’s “Ghosts” neither challenges intellectually nor provokes emotionally: Boredom prevails, pretense abounds.
A translation by Paul Walsh, Yale dramaturg and Ibsen specialist, replaces the usual British English translation with American English. The good news is that the language is perfectly contemporary without being colloquially modern. The bad news is the language is so plain, it’s neither poetic or rhythmic. When the script voices Ibsen’s notions about morality, everything is spelled out. There’s little nuance or dimension; the text is, well, untextured.
What can an actor, even the most accomplished stage actor, do? Which brings us to Ms. Thurman. Her aloof, cool, almost detached Helene suggests a recoiling from rather than embracing of the part. Helene starts out rather placid, fragile, almost timid, and ends up in the same place. Anger, or passion of any kind, never spikes. Where’s Helene’s inner fierceness that powers her sense of survival? Ms. Thurman fills in the interior blanks with repetitive, stylized posturing, which annoys; the indicating gets tedious fast. Mr. Pecinka as son Oswald fares better. His task is less complicated; his character’s behavior arcs from unstable to mad, a less interior challenge than Ms. Thurman’s.
The direction by Carey Perloff is static, as was her direction of the dreadful production of Tom Stoppard’s “Indian Ink” at Roundabout in 2014. Her conceptual design is most curious; virtually all the play occurs on a bench and a few chairs stage center (with not much more action than a staged reading). Most of the main stage is dedicated to a large, framed, double-story, modern-style structure (with a “roof” or embankment of wild grass overhead) of darkly stained, semi-opaque glass panels, the kind you often see in suburban office-park lobbies. The interior space accommodates two chandeliers, a greenhouse-like area with plants and an oil portrait (presumably of the dead Mr. Alving) on the wall, but it’s primarily a “music room” in which composer David Coulter performs his score by playing wine glasses, a saw, a xylophone and timpani.
The abstract, spare score is appropriately dark, brooding and sometimes eerie, often reminiscent of the atonal underscoring favored by Ivo van Hove (like in “The View From the Bridge”) to convey dramatic tension. Ms. Perloff says the score carried “the ghostly sounds of everything—lust, memory, fear, desire.” That’s nice, but it can’t substitute for those emotions when there’s no drama on the stage.
P.S. There was an audience first at the performance I attended. There was the usual: a few cell phones went off; a few iPhones tumbling out of pockets went “thud” on the floor; a plastic wine cup clunked on the floor, too; and some of the audience felt obliged to applaud the movie star when she came on stage. What was new is, sometime in the second act, a sweet, fruity aroma wafted through: The slob a few rows away was vaping. Besides all of that, the play was great, Mr. Ibsen.
Ghosts plays on the main stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main St., Williamstown, Massachusetts, through Sunday, Aug. 18. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, call the box office at (413) 458-3253 or go to wtfestival.org.