Over the years, most of Henrik Ibsen’s plays have been approached with labels already in mind: “A Doll’s House” champions women’s emancipation; “An Enemy of the People” is a denunciation of civic and journalistic corruption; “Ghosts” is the one about venereal disease.
All accurate to a point, but still oversimplifications that minimize Ibsen’s complexity and distort his vision. Ibsen, one of the more revolutionary playwrights, wrote of political and social issues that people of his era usually kept quiet about. Like Tolstoy, his contemporary, Ibsen accepted the responsibility that the writer must speak when others won’t.
But within this context, Ibsen also explored the hidden, less tangible realm of personal relationships, especially those disturbed bonds found in the family. “Ghosts,” now at the Alternative Repertory Theatre in Santa Ana, is an example of his dimensions. The 1881 play has syphilis coursing through it, but the disease is as much a metaphor for the Alving family’s decline as a message about the period’s sexual ignorance and circumscription.
Obviously, “Ghosts” is a complicated work, one requiring more than a little precision to explore its pondering and ponderous layers. Unfortunately, at least on opening night Friday, ART wasn’t quite up to the challenge. This “Ghosts,” hampered by a tentative cast and Patricia L. Terry’s serious but oblique, unresolved direction, didn’t fully materialize.
Coming to grips with what has passed between Oswald Alving (Tom Orr) and his dead father is vital in handling this play. It is important to realize not only that Oswald is infected with the disease once carried by Capt. Alving, but that also, symbolically, he has inherited the father’s sins. His life is ruined by Capt. Alving’s life of debauchery; he pays the price for the elder’s profligacy.
Ibsen extends the symbol through Oswald’s mother (Myrna Niles), who has an epiphany (much like Nora in “A Doll’s House”) concerning the onus of the past in handicapping our potential. During a talk with Pastor Manders (Jack Thomas), who has visited to discuss the orphanage she has, ironically, built to honor her husband, she attacks “the ghosts of innumerable old prejudices and beliefs” as handcuffing generations to come. Mrs. Alving exhorts everyone to do away with the past and “let in the light.”
In this scene, ART came nearest to realizing the play’s clenched but nonetheless liberating nature. Niles showed conviction (her performance was the production’s steadiest) in Mrs. Alving’s edgy exchanges with the pastor, a village leader whose hypocrisy and unyielding religious adherence helps to spur her outspoken doubts.
There were times when the contrast of these characters had voltage and, more importantly, was enlightening. But more often than not, they didn’t connect as adversaries, allies, confidants or anything, and much of the problem came from Thomas’ inability to define Manders.
Ibsen’s writing tells us that the pastor is at best a pedant, at worst an immoral, even unlawful man, but Thomas’ unfocused reading didn’t add to what we already know. This was a major problem--so much of the play’s exposition comes from the conversations (and reactions) of Pastor Manders and Mrs. Alving; if we don’t feel engaged by both of them, we miss much of the setup for what follows.
What follows centers, primarily, on Oswald. He is “Ghosts’ ” most obvious victim, an artist who can no longer work because of the attacks that come from his illness. He is a model of tragedy, and Orr gave him tragedy and then some, playing Oswald with a wan, faraway aspect and infusing his dialogue with a deathly tone.
To Orr’s credit, there were moments when his characterization reached the right pitch of helplessness, but generally it had an actorly, arch quality that detracted from the overall performance. Less leering at the servant Regina (Jennifer Myers-Johnson) is also advised; it doesn’t take much to let the audience know that, besides the disease, Oswald has inherited the old man’s passions.
Not all of “Ghosts” is gloom and doom. Ibsen sardonically tweaks religion through the pastor’s interactions with Engstrand (Mitchell Nunn), the Alvings’ roguish carpenter, and director Terry handled the scene better than any other. She used it to give pause during all the tension while at the same time revealing some of Engstrand’s manipulative nature.
The production’s general weaknesses did not extend to Kristan J. Clark’s set, Karen J. Weller’s costumes or David C. Palmer’s lighting. All the details were in place to create a period atmosphere, and Palmer’s soft lighting was effective and unobtrusive.
An Alternative Repertory Theatre production of Henrik Ibsen’s drama. Directed by Patricia L. Terry. With Myrna Niles, Jack Thomas, Tom Orr, Mitchell Nunn and Jennifer Myers-Johnson. Set by Kristan J. Clark. Costumes by Karen J. Weller. Lighting by David C. Palmer. Makeup by Gary Christensen. Sound by John R. Fisher. Plays Thursday through Sunday at 8 p.m. through Nov. 5 at 1636 S. Grand Ave., Santa Ana. Tickets: $10. (714) 836-7929.