Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, Translated from the Norwegian by Paul Walsh, Directed by Carey Perloff, Seattle REP through May 1
On the drive home from this play, the Lovely Bride wondered if it was time to retire Ibsen from the theatrical canon.
This is a major statement on her part. Ibsen had a strong impression on her in her youth. The LB had an Ibsen phase growing up (She also had a Bertolt Bretcht phase, but we won't dwell on that here). Ibsen wrote strong women into his works and castigated moral hypocrisy and talked about issues that were at that time conveniently buried beneath the floorboards. If modern theatre had a list of saints, Ibsen would at the head of the line. So, retire him from performance? Seriously?
Let me get to that matter in a moment - I need to walk through the play itself. Helena Alving, widow of ten years, lives on a manor out in the wilds of Denmark. She is on the verge of dedicating an orphanage on her grounds to her late husband. Her son has returned from Paris. She has a dedicated maid, whose ne'er-do-well father is overseeing the orphanage's construction. She is dealing with the final details with the family pastor, who is an old and affectionate friend. Things are going well.
Well, no. Secrets start leaking out. Helena's sainted husband was a philandering bastard. The dedicated maid is really the husband's illegitimate child. The son is taking a shine to the maid, risking inadvertent incest. And the son, back from Paris, has venereal disease, which in the Ibsenian universe is inherited from the father and also results in sudden and certain madness. And the orphanage is uninsured, for, in the words of the Pastor, to insure it would be to show a lack of faith in god to protect it. So you know where that is going.
And yeah, that line about insurance got a laugh in the audience. In fact, a lot of Pastor Mander's lines got inadvertent laughs, which I am going to say was not the intent back in the 1880s. Mander's hypocrisy and stiff-necked morality is met with derision by modern audiences, so the lines land completely differently now than they did then. For a harbinger of modern theater, Ibsen comes off as, well, quaint.
The cast is crackerjack. Award-winner David Stratharin as Pastor Manders is soft bullying, responding to society's requirements as his compass. But Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is the heart of the play, dominating the stage and by turns conventional and rebellious, the look on her face when the Pastor's plans come crashing down on his ears is electrifying. Albert Buio III and Thom Sesma are good in their roles as the scion of the Alvings and the carpenter, respectively, but it is Nikita Tewani as Regina, the maid, that ultimately shines as she denies Helena her happy ending, and for excellent reasons.
The roles throughout are played subtlety as well. Sesma's carpenter could be more snakelike, Straitharn's Pastor even more stiff-necked, but the direction gives them nuance and depth that could otherwise be lacking. The actors are portraying their characters more realistically, to a degree that I don't know would have been possible on the 19th century stage.
The set design is intriguing as well. The manor's setting with its grass roof makes it feel like a barrow grave, its pale wood timbers definitely fit for IKEA. And in the center back is a glass-paneled room that serves both as storage for lost furnishings and as housing for David Coulter, who provides the music. Coulter's work does a lot of the heavy lifting for the tone of the work, creating musical effects on tympani, zither, and glass armonica (I'm guessing here) that underscore the unsettled nature of the characters.
The pieces are all here, but it still feels odd. And the fault is not in the original work or the actors, but rather in the fact that it belongs to a different time and a different audience. The 21st Century has moved through the shock value of forbidden topics (though we will always still find them) and what required stern reflection is now met with nervous laughter. What was once scathing is now just cringe. The past, indeed, is another country, and in the case of Ghosts, it is a desolate county indeed.