nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 6, 2008
The Pearl Theatre Company's new production of Ibsen's Ghosts is precisely what you hope an evening of "classic" theatre will be: a riveting, involving drama, beautifully performed and presented, that feels timely and resonant, emotionally and politically. I recommend it strongly.
The story, as you may know, revovles around Mrs. Alving, a widow living on a country estate in Norway with just a servant girl, Regina, for company. Her son, Osvald—an artist working in Europe—has just returned home for the first time in many years. He is just in time for the grand opening of an orphanage on the estate, a good works project that Mrs. Alving has dedicated to the memory of her late husband. For this occasion, Mrs. Alving's longtime advisor, Pastor Manders, has come from the city to officiate at the opening ceremonies.
The ghosts of the play's title are the spectral presences of secrets and lies that pervade this estate and its denizens. Osvald has not been entirely forthcoming to his mother about his true reason for returning home; Mrs. Alving is hoping to exorcise some demons of her own in consecrating this orphanage; even Regina has ulterior motives for her recent study of French and her refusal to return home to her father, Jacob Engstrand, who wants her to assist him in starting up a seamen's home in town. All is revealed as the play proceeds.
But what could feel like soapy melodrama never does in Regge Life's taut and intense production of the drama. Instead, the play's major theme of hypocrisy rotting a family from the inside out is both magnified and amplified, allowing us to examine the banal concerns that lead to all this suffocating, putrefying mendacity: appearances, social mores, gossip.
All of the action unfolds on a richly detailed set by Harry Feiner that feels comfortable enough yet has a suggestion of the claustrophobia that Mrs. Alving and her son (and her servant) all suffer from. Period costumes by Sam Fleming are appropriate. Stephen Petrilli's lighting and Mark Huang's sound are evocative and gracefully subtle—no one on the design team has gone overboard with symbolism or darkness, leaving us instead to find these for ourselves within Ibsen's very naturalistic framework.
The performances cut very deep indeed. T.J. Edwards and Kelana Richards, as Engstrand and his daughter Regina, have the smallest roles, but both make significant impressions, especially in the final scenes, when the machinations of each get played out rather baldly: their alikeness as survivors, in spite of all that we have learned about them, resounds clearly. John Behlmann, a newcomer to the Pearl, gives us an Osvald who has been shaken to his very marrow by the troubles that brought him home.
Tom Galantich is quite brilliant as Pastor Manders. This man, who is essentially the receptor of and reactor to most of the play's major revelations, turns out to have a spine and a heart, despite much evidence to the contrary. Manders and Mrs. Alving share some history, and I felt an awareness of that in Galantich's performance even before the information is divulged. The compromises this unhappy man has made with life—with society, with respectability, with morality—feel authentic and clear. Galantich shows us how forcibly the superficialities of Manders's existence have taken hold—there was a scene when I thought to myself how everything Manders was saying and doing could just as well have been said and done by Lady Bracknell under other circumstances. (Note that the Pearl will be tackling Wilde's Earnest next this season; that linkage is no accident.)
Anchoring the play in a splendidly wrought performance is Joanne Camp as Mrs. Alving. Camp is so thoughtful and deliberate here that we can practically see right into this woman's heart and mind. I was particularly moved by a section of the play when the pastor is explaining some of his feelings and positions to Mrs. Alving, who is knitting quietly on a couch—but on her face play out all the emotions, concerns, reservations of this woman who is perhaps understanding for the very first time the man she has relied upon for so long. I couldn't take my eyes off her.