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A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
If you will glance down at the credits box at the end of this review, you will notice that no set designer has been credited. This usually means that the production is played in the abstract -- against the bare walls of the space, so there is nothing for a set designer to do. This is not the usual case.
Here, Ghosts has been splendidly staged in the restored ballroom of the club-house that is now the Century Center for the Performing Arts. No set design is necessary because the high ceilings, enormous French doors, plaster moldings, elaborate fireplace and opulent skylight of the room could easily have been designed as a part of the fin de siècle grand country estate of Captain Alving and his wife (Kathleen Garrett). All that is missing is the large fjord outside the window, and it has been nicely evoked by Marc Gwinn's extensive sound design and Jason Cina's lighting effects.
Don't let the period feel of the production fool you, however. Ghosts substantiates Ibsen's standing as "the father of modern drama," no matter how it looks. A torrent of Victorian unspeakables -- marital infidelity, incest, venereal disease, etc. -- swirl around a story that unfolds not linearly, as one might expect, but in explosions of startling irony. The straightforward Protestant morality of the local minister (Mark Elliot Wilson) becomes a play toy in Ibsen's hands; Mrs. Alving's torment, Ibsen's pre-occupation.
As the excellent program notes relate, Mrs. Alving is a sequel of sorts to Ibsen's Nora, in A Doll's House. Whereas Nora, famously, walks out slamming the door behind her, Mrs. Alving's designs on leaving her unsatisfactory marriage are vanquished by the entreaties of Pastor Manders to do her "duty". She remains, now haunted both literally and figuratively by the products of her "hollow mockery" of a marriage, as the import of the visitation of a father's sins on his son is fully realized.
Captain Alving has been dead for ten years now, and Osvald (Dennis Turney), their son who Mrs. Alving sent away to Paris when he was seven, has returned, fragile. It's twenty years later, but not the happy reunion of Mrs. Alving's fantasy. A present visit from Manders, who cannot abide the details of the flagrant, "immoral" Paris life of an artist, fans the flames, as it were, of manifold ills. A local workman, Engstrand (Stephen Payne), and his putative daughter, Regina (Heidi Dippold), who has curiously been taken under Mrs. Alving's dominion as a household servant, bring with them secrets that only make matters worse. It gives away little to say that it is a story of unrelenting tragedies.
J. C. Compton has given us a straightforward staging that makes excellent use of the fixed space. And except for the Payne's accomplished rendering of the hobbled inebriate, Engstrand, she permits little in the way of excess. Payne is indeed the production's only eccentricity, but not its only excellent performer. Dennis Turney's Osvald is a measured lesson: a brittle enigma. He is never so thoughtful that his impulses seem out of character, and yet also never insincere such that his emotions seem impure. Wilson is able to convey a graceful stoicism such that the many ironies to which he is subjected are able to find their own resonance. But to Ms. Garrett falls the play's most complex task: conveying Mrs. Alving's painful fate without over-dramatizing it. She effects it cautiously, remaining a mother most of all.
Ghosts requires little if any tinkering to make its message "alive and relevant today," which is Century Center's mission. Wisely, director Compton has left well enough alone, resisting any temptation to alter Ibsen's essential and elegant equation. As a part of Century's Ibsen series (in which it is presenting all of Ibsen's major works more or less chronologically), the faithful result successfully places the play precisely the context it requires.
LINKS TO REVIEWS OF OTHER IBSEN PLAYS
CurtainUp's review of A Doll's House
CurtainUp's review of John Gabriel Borkman
CurtainUp's review of Peer Gynt