THEATRE REVIEW: WTF’s memorable ‘Ghosts’ is realistic and contemporary
By Henrik Ibsen, translated by Paul Walsh
Directed by Carey Perloff
“Mother, you’re my best friend in the world.”
Oswald Alving actually has few friends and his mother hasn’t been one to him. They have lived apart most of his life: her doing. He knows very little about her or about his father, Captain Alving, who has died four years earlier. Oswald’s chief reason, ostensibly, for coming home to the family’s country estate in western Norway is to celebrate his father’s achievements at the dedication of an orphanage built as a memorial to him. Waiting to greet him is his mother; her maid Regina; the family friend Pastor Manders; and Regina’s father, Jakob Engstrand. Still, it’s not a comfortable homecoming for as many reasons as there are people onstage.
What Oswald doesn’t know can actually hurt him: Forget the sticks and stones here and concentrate on the words that can harm him and his existence. He is ill, with a venereal disease that doctors cannot reasonably explain; all he knows is that contracting it is probably his own fault. He may die from it, but he is prepared for the worst of times; he only needs help to see to his own demise. He wants Regina to be his helpmate, but when push comes to shove, all she really wants is to be taken to Paris where he lives. So when his mother, who has kept all sorts of secrets from him for his entire life, is asked to be his “best friend,” the finest moment of her life is agreeing to help out of the world the youth she brought into the world. The question, ultimately, is whether or not she can honor her promise.
“Ghosts,” now on the main stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, is a difficult play on a difficult subject. Ibsen’s construction of it leaves no quarter for the audience: They must already have knowledge of the illness syphilis. They must already know that this play was banned in Europe, almost throughout Europe, in the 1880s when it was written. They need to know that women who wouldn’t abide husbands who hurt them in any one of a hundred ways had little or no recourse but were compelled by the law to maintain their lawful, painful relationships. In his 1879 play “A Doll’s House,” Ibsen had already broken that last restriction by having Nora leave her husband and children behind her as she slammed the front door of their house. It was not an easy solution and it was certainly not one he could repeat in his next play.
The production at the WTF is one that breaks some of its historic rules. First: the play is single star-driven. Uma Thurman plays Mrs. Helene Alving in an easy, passive way that is highly moving. She delivers her lines in a darkly dramatic yet realistic way: Second: Tom Pecinka plays against the glass walls of the set as one would play a medium-sized harmonica. He poses, postures and pictures a past that is positively polarized.
Third: Catherine Combs delivers an emotional performance without peaks or emotional valleys.
Fourth and Fifth: As her father, Engstrand, Thom Sesma plays a physical caricature but does it believably. Bernard White turns Pastor Manders into a melodramatically villainous man of the cloth who cannot redeem his mistakes and his judgments through word or action; he can only rain down regret upon his own brow.
The play is set during a typical rainy period in Norway, yet we hear the rain only a few times—very much in the deepest background—and we never see it, unless you consider the thatched roof to be verdant and in full bloom as a result of all that water. It has been definitely set in the late 1800s as you can tell from the two women’s costumes.
Everything is beautifully done in a production that should succeed and would if it wasn’t as cold as coastal Norway in the winter months when everything snows silently, which does not happen in this instance. It is the spring and there is rain, or should be. Instead we have electronic music by David Coulter, which is wonderful and moody and filmic in its use and style, replacing the actual sound of nature crippling the lives of human souls in distress.
I liked this production but, in truth, it is lacking in that theatrical realism of which Ibsen is often considered the “father.” People speak, in this edition translated by Paul Walsh, in the half-truths and inferred honesty that Ibsen employs in telling the backstories that are so important to the play. We observe the characters “getting it,” but sometimes we cannot comprehend what is being told because the words don’t say enough to those who are uninitiated to the play’s hidden truths.
Uma Thurman is brilliant in her underplaying. For her Mrs. Alving, the stiffening of a shoulder speaks louder than the words and gestures that provoke her reaction. She is swiftly becoming an American Eva LeGallienne in her work and it is much appreciated in this difficult role.
Sri-Lankan-American actor Bernard White plays Pastor Manders, the man Helene Alving would have sacrificed her marriage for back in the day. He makes the smarmy minister into a most interesting man and as the world around him crumbles he falls back on his ministry to support a much too fragile ego. It is a laudable performance on every level.
Japanese-American Thom Sesma plays Jakob Engstrand, the carpenter whose marriage to Helene’s former maidservant becomes a major plot point. Sesma’s character is a crippled artisan whose work in carpentry is as important as architectural design.
Sesma gets all of this man’s characteristics right, and he creates a hard-to-like man whose motives are not as squeaky-clean as he would like Helene Alving to believe. He tells his stories with conviction and nearly convinces the audience of his honesty when it is his deceitfulness that is shining out like the sun that only appears in its glory one time in the play.
As his daughter, Regina, Catherine Combs plays the dark side more often than the lighter, more flirtatious and romantic Regina. She is very good in this role, endowing it with reality and strength, and when she breaks out of the sudden entrapment Oswald offers her, she become a heroine of elegant, unequaled proportions.
It is Tom Pecinka’s melodramatic style that infuses much overheated life into the play. So much is centered on this character that Pecinka’s choices help to turn the play away from Helene and onto Oswald.
Whether or not Ibsen intended the son to be at the center of things, he is certainly that in both the writing and the playing. His call for “The Sun” fully swings the deal onto Oswald, and Pecinka is soulfully thrilling in the play’s final moments, even though the light and shadow of the play’s design highlight the difficult decisions ahead for Thurman’s Helene.
The two of them are wonderful together, especially as her affection for him becomes more evident and his resistance to it becomes more difficult.
Director Carey Perloff has used the unusual set design by Diane Laffrey wonderfully as emotions and health move the characters to and fro and back and forth around the large stage in Williamstown. Perloff has certainly given each character his/her moments in which to shine, and she has moved the play out of its own antiquity and into the more contemporary light where, even now, certain things are never discussed in polite society.
Laffrey’s costumes are as right for this production as her set. The women’s clothes, for example, express their wearer’s status and purpose in life.
The lighting design work by James F. Ingalls keeps the place in a remote darkness of daytime in a heavy, dark, clouded, rain-soaked day. We may not see or hear the rain in this production, but we do feel it in the lighting. His final effects are beautifully arranged and illuminate the human problems of the play.
Beth Lake’s sound design work is fine, but without the rain (which is at best subliminal and occasional), the play lacks the sense of covert inhibition that is right there in the text.
David Coulter’s music, seen as much as heard, is extraordinary and effective.
This production of Ibsen’s “Ghosts” is one of the most memorable I’ve seen. With Thurman’s elegance and nuanced playing, Pecinka’s emotive and visceral credibility, and the other actors’ reality, the play is simply alive onstage.
I saw a preview performance and I am certain that, after the official Aug. 8 opening, that reality of living will be even more perfectly clarified. You won’t see anything more realistic than this 19th-century “Ghosts” this summer on our regional stages.
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.