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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Living on her estate overlooking a fjord, Mrs. Alving is in the process of building a town orphanage in memory of her late husband, a philandering, debauched and cruel man. Though she once attempted to leave him, unlike Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House, she was forced to return. In the hope of ridding herself of Alving's memory, Helene uses his funds to build this memorial and to be quit of him forever. But as the play gradually reveals, the tangle of past transgressions incest, sexually transmitted disease, illegitimacy cannot easily be undone.
The set, a modern glass edifice with a tilted thatched roof, dominates the stage, forcing the actors into a very limited playing space. Thus the direction by Carey Perloff stagnates within its confines. Though striking, it does not serve the production as it overpowers the human story and dwarfs the actors. Any action in the removed dining room is at such a distance as to minimize its effectiveness.
Aside from housing an oil painting of the deceased Captain Alving, chandeliers and greenhouse, the glass enclosure shelters the composer-musician, David Coulter. He plays ethereal music and sounds designed to enhance the elements of the play while employing a saw, xylophone, timpani and wine glasses. This is effective, yet his presence distracts. The darkly tinted windows also reflect the actors "through a glass darkly" which, though atmospheric and symbolic, is somewhat disconcerting.
Bernard White as Pastor Manders is the long time family friend and clergyman. His sermonizing, which represents the narrow Norwegian view of life, is delivered with very distracting repetitive gestures that keeps the actor from realizing a fully nuanced delivery. His hands abort his intent. We are given to believe that Helene was and may still be attracted to him in spite of his buffoon-like fear of other people's opinions.
Thom Sesma is outstanding as Jakob Engstrand. The crippled carpenter slyly manipulates with a smirk and a wink almost surprised at his own ability to twist his betters with a smarmy connivance. Catherine Combs as Regina is the woman Helene Alving can never be. Discovering the truth of her origin, she shrugs off her naive dreams and heads to the ferry to escape the dreary life offered to her. Perhaps she will be the one to escape the "duty" that has bound both Mrs. Alving and Pastor Manders.
Tom Peckina's Oswald Alving is ignorant of his father's transgressions. Believing that he himself is the cause of his fatal syphilis, he has returned from France to die. Abandoning his work – his art – ostensibly to celebrate the honor to his father, the gradual revelations of the truth and destruction of hope is the ultimate denouement of Ghosts.
This is a story of family secrets and bourgeois hypocrisy. Ahead of his time, Ibsen's observations about society incurred the wrath of his own audience. Some of the play's lines about a woman's expected roles in life continue to draw gasps of shock with the realization that this was all a woman could expect in that time period.
The dark mood is evidenced by lighting designer James F. Ingalls, underscoring the pretentious utterances that keep the play rooted in its past. This production is as cold as a Nordic winter.
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Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen
Translated from the Norwegian by Paul Walsh
Directed by Carey Perloff
Composer: David Coulter
Cast: Catherine Combs (Regina Engstrand) Thom Sesma (Jakob Engstrand) Bernard White (Pastor Manders) Uma Thurman (Mrs. Helene Alving) Tom Peckina (Oswald Alving)
Scenic & Costume Design: Dane Laffrey
Lighting Design: James F. Ingalls
Sound Design: Beth Lake
Stage Manager: Steven Ravet
Running Time: two hours-twenty-five minutes; one intermission
Williamstown Theatre Festival Main Stage, Williamstown, MA
From 7/31/19; closing 8/18/19
Reviewed by Gloria Miller at the August 8th performance ..
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