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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review

. . .we are all of us ghosts.. . .it is not only what we have inherited from our fathers and mothers that 'walks' in us. It is all sorts of dead ideas and lifeless old beliefs. . .
--- Mrs. Alving.
Playwright Lanford Wilson has added a colloquial flavor to Ghosts the story of the consequences of not slamming the door on an untenable marriage (as Nora Helmer did in A Doll's House.) Wilson has also trimmed the script so that it takes just ninety minutes, without an intermission, before Oswald Alving, the son doomed as much by the wages of his mother's virtue as his father's sin, utters his famous last line, "The sun. --The sun."

Some of the colloquial edges stick out a bit too sharply, like Regina Engstrand's accusing her father of planning a "scam" and Oswald describing Regina as "terrific." and telling his mother about artist friends who live in "domestic partnerships." Only one of Wilson's linguistic filips -- referring to Regina's mother as the late Mr. Alving's "assistant " instead of the seduced servant girl she actually was -- is wrong-headed since it is counter to the social realities of a household like the Alving family. On balance, these are minor missteps since Wilson has not preempted Ibsen but merely used his playwright's ear to give the actors an easily speakable text. The cuts intensify Ibsen's innovative retroactive plot structure in an age of tight beginning, middle and end plotting. The play begins twenty years after the events when the seeds planted by Mr. Alving's sexual adventuring and his wife's conformity to the social code reap an incendiary harvest. While the issues of sexually transmitted disease, infidelity, incest have long lost their shock effect, the lingering consequences of following the dictates of "dead ideas" make Ghosts as relevant and watchable as ever.

Amy Irving is not only one of the most beautiful Mrs. Alvings ever, but invests her with sexual tension that almost overshadows her essential role as a mother. In an effort to shelter her son (Ted Schneider) from the darkness of the household, she sent him away to Paris as a child. The play introduces us to a mature but still vibrant Mrs. Alvings who has gained strength and a more independent spirit from books espousing more enlightened ideas than those of the narrow-minded Pastor Manders (Daniel Gerroll) who persuaded her to stay with her husband. She's put Manders in charge of the orphanage which she has dedicated to her husband in order to free herself from the hold of his memory and money. There's a scene between her and the pastor in which the attractive Gerroll manages to make us see why Mrs. Alving is still drawn to him even though he's as much a pompous ass as ever. That scene, which fills the audience in on how as a young, disillusioned wife she sought not just his protection but his love, sizzles with emotion as Irving's Helen sinks to her knees and takes Manders' face between her hands. One almost wishes that director Daniel Fish had taken this highly charged moment further and let Manders succumb to temptation for at least a brief embrace.

Newcomer Ted Schneider makes an auspicious debut as Oswald even though he doesn't quite capture all the role's nuances. Lisa Demont, another newcomer, quite successfully conveys the ambitious Regina's mood swing from agreeably subversive to bitterly resentful. David Patrick Kelly is most convincing as the ever practical Engstrand. When he shifts the blame for the orphanage fire (another inevitable legacy of the Alving marriage) to Manders and you're not sure if the pastor genuinely sees some good in the disaster or realizes that he's being blackmailed we have enother potent example of the enigmatic quality in Ibsen's plays that leaves it to the audience to figure out the characters' inner thoughts.

The streamlined, chamber concert quality of this production and the Classic Stage's small thrust stage are well suited to a less realistically detailed set than usually seen and specified in Ibsen's stage directions. With just a few pieces of furniture, which include the desk holding all those books that have been Mrs. Alvings' companions and mentors, Christine Jones has evoked the flavor of the Western Norway estate. Aided by Scott Zielinski's skilled lighting, she makes brilliant use of a glass window to evoke an aura of darkness, rain and dawning sunlight and the sense of the vistas beyond that window. Kay Voyce's tightly fitted midnight blue velvet dress for Amy Irving brings a sexy new look to the Victorian high neck and bustle.

This lean, expressionistic production will make traditionalists recall ghosts of more fully furnished, uncut productions. It may make followers of Wilson's work wonder at his willingness to trim Ibsen, but not his own plays. Since this five-week run coincides with the stagings of two Wilson plays as part of the Signature Theatre's theater goers are afforded a rare opportunity to see his work as playwright as well as adapter. Having just seen Book of Days (My Review), I couldn't help noting the parallel between the choice made by a wife in that play and here, both influenced by a minister with tunnel vision. Both wives are persuaded to cling to the narrow interpretation of family values rather than to move forward with their lives. No wonder Ibsen is called the father of so many a modern drama!

The theme of how the past expresses itself in the present through the legacies left by one generation to the next marks the overall theme of CSC's season. The other two plays to explore this "legacy" theme are Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale which will star David Straithairn, and Savanna Day written by Margaret Duras and starring Kathleen Chalfant.

Links to other productions of Ghosts reviewed at CurtainUp
Ghosts as part of Century Center's Ibsen series
Ghosts in London
CurtainUp has reviewed many other Ibsen productions, a which can be found in our Archive of All Reviews.

Written by Henrik Ibsen
Translated by Lanford Wilson Directed by Daniel Fish
Cast: Lisa Dermot (Regina Engstrand), David Patrick Kelly (Jakkob Engstrand), Reverend Manders (Daniel Gerroll), Mrs. Hhelen Alving (Amy Irving), Ted Schneider (Oswald Alving)
Set Design: Christine Jones
Costume Design: Kaye Voyce
Lighting Design: Scott Zielinski
Music and Sound Design: Eric Shim
Running time: 90 minutes, without intermission
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street (3/4 Ave) 212/ 677-4210, ext. 13, or comapny web site
11/01/02-12/08/02; opening 11/10/02
Tues-Sat at 8pm; matinees Sat at 2pm and Sun at 3pm -- $35 -$50 for single tickets ($25 with $30 memberships)
Tuesday night talkbacks with members of the cast; Saturday matinees followed by symposium with guest speaker
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 11/09 press performance.
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