Theater : An Articulate 'Ghosts'

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

One thing Norway and the United States have in common is a puritanical heritage. It usually plays havoc with our protestations of freedom and equality, and especially with freedom of speech. We see contradiction at work on a daily basis in the endless debate over such items as art, abortion, homosexuality, pornography and civil rights.

The analogy between this state of affairs and the dark world of Victorian Norway comes into sharp focus in director Jack O'Brien's lucid revival of Henrik Ibsen's "Ghosts," which opened Saturday at the Old Globe Theatre's Cassius Carter Centre Stage.

You know. The play about syphilis and the sins of the fathers being visited upon the sons.

In this case, it is the return of the afflicted son Osvald (Christopher Collet) to the home of his supposedly emancipated mother, Mrs. Alving (Patricia Conolly). It is a bitter irony for this powerful woman, who has made a life's work of suffering her husband's depravities while concealing them from the world, to find them so vengefully brought home. Pivotal to the dialectic is the mentor role of rigid Pastor Manders (Richard Easton), a lethal pillar of propriety.

Lace the plot with the complication of Capt. Alving's illegitimate daughter Regina--or Regine, as she is called here--and her designs on Osvald, and you have the classic well-made play, driven by shock and discourse.

It's fire and brimstone time about sin and retribution that has more echoes in our modern world than even Ibsen dreamed of. Take AIDS, and the high cost of denial. The production at the Carter doesn't miss a temblor. And its aftershocks constitute a powerful rebuke to lingering intolerance and persistent narrow thinking.

Lucky the young person who has never seen "Ghosts" before and can therefore be struck by its reverberations at the Carter. Luckier still the older person who has seen "Ghosts," and should find renewed admiration for Ibsen's modernity--a modernity not always so apparent in his plays, though certainly in "A Doll's House," "Hedda Gabler" and "Ghosts." Especially "Ghosts."

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Perhaps the analogy in the case of "Ghosts" is enhanced by the presence next door of "Falsettos," the William Finn and James Lapine musical about tolerance and AIDS. ("Falsettos," in previews at the Globe, opens officially Thursday.) The aptness of the association did not escape O'Brien who noted the merit of presenting these two "plague plays" side by side.

All that separates them is a century--a long, tormented century in which we appear to have made almost no progress at all.

There is a dreaded tendency in American theater to play Ibsen solemnly and two-dimensionally; in other words, to play the obvious, which almost always spells theatrical suicide. So a great deal of credit goes to O'Brien for delivering a production of "Ghosts" that is dramatically palatable without minimizing the seriousness of its subject, and easy on the ear thanks to a richly current translation by Nicholas Rudall.

What makes this revival captivating, aside from the flow of the language, is O'Brien's focus on the actor as motivational force. This enlarges the written word and makes it flesh, giving the play subtlety and dimension.

This enhancement is exemplified by Easton's masterful portrayal of Manders, a role whose centrality is all too frequently undervalued. Not here. His Manders is a well-meaning menace, a fearful fool with a head full of the wrong ideas, who is virtually caged by his views. Without Easton, the production might have been far less than it is.

Conolly's Mrs. Alving is almost as major an undertaking. In the disdainful curl of her lip or the habit she has of staring off into the distance, as if looking at her surroundings would be too painful, Conolly provides a clue to this controlling woman's downfall: the arrogant edge of overconfidence that turns drama to tragedy. Even her tendency to posture and attitudinize works to the role's advantage.

Emily Bly's insolent Regine is a thorn in all their sides, a dangerous presence that symbolizes the futility of lies (of which she is a walking example). She is a sharp contrast to the transparently deceitful--and thereby neutralized--Engstrand, played with his usual muted flourish by Jonathan McMurtry.

Collet's Osvald is slightly more problematic, not in his performance as the injured innocent baffled by the turn of events, which is on target, but because his verbal delivery, in contrast to the others, is too casually contemporary.

Dona Granata has dressed everyone in autumnal clothes, as if in mourning for the "ghosts of dead ideas," making sure nonetheless that the women are endowed with the sensuous hour-glass figures of the period. Ralph Funicello's simple setting of tables and chairs is given atmosphere by Ashley York Kennedy's surreptitious lights.

The effect is eloquently dirgeful, in an articulate production strongly rooted in the present.

* "Ghosts," Cassius Carter Centre Stage, Old Globe Theatre, Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts, Balboa Park. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends April 25. $18-$32; (619) 239-2255. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Emily Bly: Regine

Jonathan McMurtry: Engstrand

Richard Easton: Pastor Manders

Patricia Conolly: Mrs. Alving

Christopher Collet: Osvald

Director Jack O'Brien. Playwright Henrik Ibsen. Translator Nicholas Rudall. Sets Ralph Funicello. Lights Ashley York Kennedy. Costumes Dona Granata. Sound Jeff Ladman. Dramaturg Anne Charlotte-Harvey. Production stage manager Douglas Pagliotti.

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