Ghosts have been haunting drama since the early days of Aeschylus. Probably the most famous of all is the ghost of Hamlet’s father, whose appearances in Shakespeare’s tragedy change as the play moves from the traditional revenge genre of the first act to the more modern introspective mode in which it’s not always easy to distinguish what is happening strictly in Hamlet’s head and what is happening in objective reality.
Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts” represents another radical breakthrough in the possibilities of spectral encounters of the literary kind. What haunts the household in this classic of 19th century realism isn’t so much the spirit of the dead, dissolute patriarch, Captain Alving, as the tonnage of family secrets buried in the bad faith and moribund morality of a shameful past.
An evening spent with Ibsen is inevitably going to entail a reckoning with evaded truth. One of the preeminent architects of modern drama, he updated the well-made play by redeploying its melodramatic plotting for purposes of psychological revelation.
Bart DeLorenzo’s production of “Ghosts,” now at the Odyssey Theatre, opts for Richard Eyre’s version of the play, which condenses the action to a mere 90 minutes, no intermission. The pace is as relentless as it is merciless without the expository padding to protect characters from a direct assault of their history.
Oswald Alving (Alex Barlas), a free-thinking young artist who has been living in Paris, has returned to Norway to live with his mother, Helene Alving (Pamela J. Gray). Restless at home, he begins a dalliance with the young maid, Regina Engstrand (Viva Hassis Gentes), whose father, Jacob (J.Stephen Brantley), a salty reprobate, is trying to amass funds for a sporting house for sailors that he hopes his attractive daughter will agree to work in.
Regina, who puts on airs while spouting phrasebook French, wants nothing to do with her degenerate dad. Her eyes are set on Oswald, whom she hopes will ask her to marry him. For reasons that become shockingly clear in due course, their closeness discomfits Mrs. Alving, who is busy making arrangements with Reverend Manders (Barry Del Sherman) for the new orphanage she is establishing as a monument to her late husband.
This final act of hypocrisy is intended to inter once and for all the ugly residue of Captain Alvin, whose drunken philandering Mrs. Alving bore as a cross. She was advised in this path by Manders, whom she loved and wanted to leave her husband for. But conventional piety urged the pastor to insist that she live up to her wifely duty, no matter that her husband grossly flaunted his infidelity.
Published in 1881 and first performed the following year, Ibsen’s “Ghosts” was infamous in its day for making hereditary syphilis a crucial element of its plot. Afflicted by the sins of his father, Oswald has returned home more out of medical necessity than homesickness. Mrs. Alving wants to start with a clean slate with her son, but the deceptions and compromises of her marriage refuse to rest peacefully in the grave with Captain Alving.
DeLorenzo, working with set designer Frederica Nascimento, lays out the rooms of the house so that it's possible to see Oswald sleeping as Mrs Alving and Manders review business details of the orphanage while rehashing their own intimate history.
The openness of the floor plan lends a refreshing modernity to a play that bleeds past the division of acts, so that whatever happens in one scene reverberates in another. "Ghosts" is devised as a series of intense private conversations. Characters are at cross-purposes with one another, but their listening is perhaps even more resonant than their speaking.
This quality of auditory aliveness is missing from DeLorenzo’s production. The rush to perform an already compacted version of the play overruns the slow, subterranean movement of understanding that the characters undergo.
The acting is at its finest when Gray’s Mrs. Alving and Del Sherman’s Manders revaluate the decision they made years ago to abandon their love. Ibsen filters through their exchange vital exposition. But even more, he provides a clash of ideas between a woman who is gaining perspective and knowledge of herself and her society and a man who is still beholden to suffocating conventions.
Barlas has tremendous stage magnetism, but he fails to connect with the other actors. It’s as though he’s acting for an audition tape. Gentes paints Regina in bold strokes but also seems more concerned with making an impression than responding to those around her, even her putative father (brought to sneaky, devilish life by Brantley).
Henry James, in his commentaries on Ibsen, insightfully noted the “extraordinary process of vivification” that takes place when the playwright’s seemingly prosaic prose dramas are enacted. Eleonora Duse found in the plays the inspiration to create through her art a revolution in modern acting.
That dazzling light is only flickeringly in evidence in this new production of “Ghosts,” which resorts at the end to directorial distractions perhaps to compensate for the faulty circuity of the ensemble. Under the X-ray of acting, “Ghosts” should expose the way our actions invisibly interconnect us, no matter how strenuous our denials.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.