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A CurtainUp Review

There must be ghosts all the country over, as thick as the sands of the sea. And then we are, one and all, so pitifully afraid of the light. —Mrs. Alving
John Behlmann as Osvald and Joanne Camp as Mrs. Alving in Ghosts. (Photo: Erin Beth Donnelly)
It's impossible to understate Henrik Ibsen's impact on drama. A controversial figure in his own time, Ibsen fired salvo after salvo at the pettiness, bigotry and repressive conventions of 19th century society, and the themes he chose—incest, adultery, venereal disease, suicide, euthanasia, and that's just for starters—shocked audiences as much as his skill entranced them.

But despite its undeniable power, I've always found that in some ways Ibsen's work hasn't aged well; the shock value of Nora's decision to leave her dominating husband at the end of A Doll's House has decreased pretty significantly in the past hundred years, and our current tendency to wonder what the big deal is in An Enemy of the People certainly wasn't shared by the audiences who first saw the play in 1882. It's with this dual understanding of Ibsen that the Pearl Theatre Company takes on his most controversial play, Ghosts—and it's perhaps because of that same odd tension that it achieves such mixed results.

Ghosts concerns the wealthy widow Mrs. Alving (Joanne Camp), whose dead husband is to be celebrated with the dedication of an orphanage built in his honor. Son Osvald (John Behlmann), having lived the Bohemian life of the artist abroad for many years, has ostensibly returned for the occasion, although as the plot progresses it becomes clear that something else more sinister has driven him home. But his interest in the maid Regina Engstrand (Keiana Richard) is unmistakable and as his intentions become clear both Mrs. Alving and her long time spiritual and financial advisor Pastor Manders (Tom Galantich) react in horror, Mrs. Alving because of the ghosts of her past which Osvald's behavior has reawakened and Manders because of the shocking indecency such behavior suggests.

Manders is a social conservative from the word go, and his attitude towards anything out of well-established societal bonds is both unforgiving and unrelenting; Osvald takes a different view, and the tension between their two positions is a fundamental one in the play. Yet, despite Manders' condemnation of Osvald and his mother for her permissiveness with him, no one is blameless here, and there are few left unscarred when the real reason for Osvald's return home is ultimately revealed.

Ghosts demands attention to detail, and on first observation the Pearl has done its usually consistent job of delivering a professional and competent production to match. Regge Life's direction is clear and succinct, and both set (Harry Feiner) and costume (Sam Fleming) establish the Victorian setting nicely. The lighting, which is critical at several points, is well rendered by Stephen Petrilli. In general, everyone is at pains to present Ibsen as Ibsen, and so at least his language comes across. It is a well-conceived and appropriately deferential rendition of Ibsen's work.

Perhaps the main problem is that at times the production is so deferential that it feels a bit flat, and audience reaction on the evening I attended was a further indication that something was missing. This is intended to be a harrowing tale of past sins returning to haunt the present, with a sense of palpable doom hovering in the background; yet many of the lines which Ibsen clearly would have meant to stun his contemporary audience elicited laughs from this modern one, and given both the delivery and content of the concepts it's hard for me to blame them. Manders' moralizing is as old-fashioned as it is offensive to modern sensibilities. While his diatribes on a woman's "duty" might have met with approval in 19th century Norway, 21st century Manhattan is a much different area of reception. Even the revelation about Osvalt's motivation for returning to the place of his birth doesn't hit home as much as it should, and part of the blame for that rests with the rather dated ideas of which Ibsen was making use.

Absent present-day horror, the only way to really convey the play's elemental force is through the characters' expression of it within their time period and lives, and most of the cast seems unable to deliver that expression (with the possible exception of TJ Edwards, whose Engstrand is consistently energetic and believable) without seeming either quaint or disingenuous. Camp in particular has difficulty in representing Mrs. Alving's conflicted emotional patterns. There's an odd detachment in her presentation (a surprising number of line flubs didn't help), and her relentlessly similar line readings make Mrs. Alving more a bore than a tragic figure. Ibsen clearly intended his final scene to be devastating; here it's underwhelming in part because of Camp's muted delivery. The ultimate effect is more intellectually clinical ("hmm, I wonder how Ibsen's audience would have seen that?") than emotionally resonant.

It's hard to say how much of this is the subject matter's fault and how much the direction and acting. Certainly the Pearl is to be commended for its continuing commitment to classic theater, and there's nothing terribly wrong with this production. However, to make the play work for whatever era in which it's to be viewed it has to be seen as relevant either to us or, at the very least, to them. In its sacrifice of energy to linguistic accuracy this version simply doesn't do that. We're ultimately left wondering what the fuss is all about, and that seems like a far cry from the explosive controversy which was Ibsen's stock in trade. I'm not sure he would have appreciated the change.

Playwright: Henrik Ibsen
Translated by Peter Watts
Directed by Regge Life
Cast: John Behlmann (Osvald Alving), Joanne Camp (Mrs. Alving), TJ Edwards (Engstrand), Tom Galantich (Pastor Manders), Keiana Richard (Regina Engstrand)
Scenic Design: Harry Feiner
Costume Design: Sam Fleming
Lighting Design: Stephen Petrilli
Sound Design: Mark Huang
Running time: Two hours, five minutes (includes one ten minute intermission)
The Pearl Theatre Company, 80 St. Mark's Place, (212) 598-9802
From 2/26/08 to 3/30/08; opening 3/09/08
Tues. @ 7 p.m., Thurs. - Sat. @ 8 p.m., Wed., Sat. and Sun. matinee @ 2 p.m.
Tickets: Tues. - Thurs. $40, Fri. - Sun. $50
Reviewed by Dr. Gregory A. Wilson based on March 7th press preview performance

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