Reviewed by Sarah Krasnow
As the Pearl Theatre Company’s literary supplement explains, in the original Norwegian, the title Ghosts means something closer to “things that return.” In English, we might also translate it as skeletons, as in those stuffed in our closets, which no locked door can keep secret for long. In this play of drawing room conversations, the skeletons do topple out of the closet, each more rattling than the previous, until we see we see why so many countries banned this play after its publication. With its focus on religious ideology’s undue influence over real-world life, sometimes to disastrous effect, Ghosts presents itself as ripe for revival these days. A Norwegian author who published work in the mid- to late-1800’s can still speak to Americans in 2008, when modernity has stalled in part because of religious fundamentalism (although with an election on the horizon, this time might be approaching an end). Though understated and at times inauthentic, this satisfying production of Ghosts illuminates Ibsen’s progressive message -- with special attention to the language of duplicity -- to a glistening clarity.
Most of the ghosts in this play haunt Mrs. Alving, a wealthy widow and benefactress of a new orphanage. As Mrs. Alving and the town clergyman, Pastor Manders, finalize the establishment’s financial details, the Pastor expresses concern over her wish to insure the place – she does not wish to imply distrust in the Lord’s protection over a children’s haven, does she? Mrs. Alving’s unease shows, but no, she does not, and the orphanage goes without. Here, we wince at the risk imposed in the name of religion, but before long, we see how much farther the name of religion has pushed Mrs. Alving. As revealed through subsequent polite and delicate but progressively heated chats with Pastor Manders, Mrs. Alving’s late husband was not the pillar of the community most townsfolk believed him; in truth, he was a hedonist, lecher, carrier of venereal disease, adulterer, and rapist (Regina, the servant girl living in Mrs. Alving’s house is, in fact, her late husband’s illegitimate child).
We learn about a time when, in a desperate hour, Mrs. Alving fled the home of her husband to what she hoped would be the welcoming arms of Manders, then a friend and almost lover. But, having entered seminary, Manders proclaimed a liaison between them and Mrs. Alving’s abandonment of her husband as a defiance of God, and insisted that she return home. She obeyed, and powerless to do much else, sent her only son, Osvald, away to school and out of his father’s poison reach. Now a man, Osvald returns, fraught with exhaustion, to his remaining parent. With his arrival and curiosity about his father, Mrs. Alving’s ghosts begin to hover and old cover-ups, all wrought in the name of propriety, creep one by one into the open.
Stiff in the bodices and waistcoats of the time, the inhabitants of this world allow histrionics to play no part here, and this production keeps the confessional conversations understated. The solid performers Joanne Camp as Mrs. Alving, Tom Galantich as Pastor Manders, and John Behlmann as Osvald exude steadiness while onstage, but swimming in a super-saturated atmosphere of restraint, they cling to a reserved style that can’t make us fully forget they are actors and not Norwegian gentlefolk. Joanne Camp proves best able to work this groundedness to her advantage: her Mrs. Alving embodies an endearing earthiness. Though some interpret her past choices as selfish or myopic, this portrayal of a reasonable matriarch keeps the audience firmly on her side. Unfortunately though, before we are treated to Camp’s performance, we have to make it through the opening scene and the production’s weakest moment. Keiana Richàrd does not fully incarnate the dynamic Regina, and her unnatural manner leaves T.J. Edwards, in an otherwise skillful performance as her lowlife adoptive father, struggling to connect with her.
Tom Galantich shapes his Pastor Manders not as hateful hypocrite but as a basically good man caught in the gray area of what is expected of him as a pastor and what is needed of him as a human. His sincere portrayal never falters, but in the end Galantich comes off as too friendly faced and downright likeable. If Ibsen’s indignation against the figure of the two-faced clergy moved him to write a play rife with misery in the name of religious mores, we should want to dislike Pastor Manders. Galantich’s warm-hearted interpretation makes it difficult.
The last and most potent scene, one between mother and son, lifts this production from mere competence to something reaching a higher caliber. After Mrs. Alving’s and Osvald’s futile attempts to navigate the breakers of the young man’s psychological storm, Osvald forces himself to reveal the secret of his inherited syphilis (another ghost come back) and his wish to have his mother feed him a lethal dose of morphine pills. Here, Camp and Behlmann finally drop the restraint and let the characters soar in trying to grasp this final horror. They struggle and scream, knowing that of all Mrs. Alving has endured, she is about to encounter the worst. In a delicate touch of directing, as Osvald trembles in his chair, muttering dementedly, lights start to fade and the agitation pulls away like a fallen leaf carried on the wind. We are left with a strange softness, echoing with the return of one more ghost and Mrs. Alving’s last chance at a decision she won’t regret.
As emphasized in this production, Ghosts resonates thanks to its ability to explain so much while revealing so little. In this play of dangerous talk, we are hyper-aware of cautious words. They serve as this community’s own language, one as comprehensible to it as plain Norwegian. Likewise, in these days of “Mission Accomplished” and “Islamo-fascism,” the weird power of impotent words resonates with a modern audience; we too are fluent in empty terminology. And like Mrs. Alving’s ghosts, enough comes back to haunt us to ensure the enduring relevancy of Ibsen’s work.
Pearl Theatre Company (80 St. Marks Place)
Tickets (212-598-9802): $40.00 - 50.00
Performances (through 3/30): Tues. @ 7 | Wed. @ 3 | Thurs. - Sat. @ 8 | Sat. & Sun. @ 2
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.