All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Like many, Helen Alving is secure in thinking that by ignoring and managing the past, a past that she has engineered through decades of manipulation, careful rearrangement, and denial, she can escape the past.
Henrik Ibsen, in his play, “Ghosts,” reminds us that the past sometimes cannot be outrun. Mrs. Alving lives in a day when no one had access to Google, social media, and various browsers that provide the opportunity to delve into history and find something less than flattering about another. Memories and secrets were most potent gatekeepers in the 19th century Norway Ibsen depicts. The problem, “Ghosts” says, is some of our secrets, facts we’ve withheld, known only by a few conspirators who are deceased or by some who don’t know the entire story, can come back to haunt us. In Ibsen’s play, past doings not only force Mrs. Alving to confront and answer for truths that make an untimely late arrival but manifest themselves in physical ways and threaten at least one being she holds dear.
“Ghosts” is a tricky play. It takes sudden turns as revelation piles upon revelation, and nothing in the end is consistent with the appearance of matters in the beginning. Ibsen’s piece requires a careful unfolding. New developments have to be absorbed and put into an increasing complex equation, the result of which changes your impression of key characters and situations. If information comes too quickly and matter-of-fact, “Ghosts” can become a comedy that makes you think, “Hoo, boy, what next?” If it comes too subtly, the production can seem as evasive as Mrs. Alving. A direct approach turns the play flat and loses effect by acting more like a laundry list than a set of exponentially evolving complications. The best way seems to ease into the play, establish Mrs. Alving’s position of normality and propriety, then have her discover, in the sequence Ibsen provides, the effects of her maneuvering, rational as it seemed at the time, in ways that make her at once an object of scorn and sympathy, one who realizes what her alleged good works have wrought and who earns the audience’s regard for her intentions as well as its forgiving but absolute rebuke for their outcome.
The People’s Light and Theatre Company’s production of “Ghosts,” directed by Ken Marini from a translation by Lanford Wilson, treads a middle ground. Marini doesn’t quite ease into the play, but once Kathryn Petersen appears as Mrs. Alving, a calmness prevails. Petersen’s Mrs. Alving is a likable, sensible woman who knows how to diplomatically bypass some of the stricter mores of her day, as upheld by Pastor Manders, played with firm assurance and dignity by Ian Merrill Peakes, and keep the routine matters of her household running smoothly and crisply. At first glance, Helen Alving is, to borrow a title from a different Ibsen play, a pillar of her community, a small enclave separated by a river from a large city, who knows when to wink at society and do things her own way with no one in authority, or in a position to judge her, any the wiser. The guise is set for the sake of outward appearance while the woman behind the only slight mask does what she wants or thinks best whether a Pastor Manders or anyone in the village or town would approve or not. Like many an Ibsen heroine, she is cognizant of society’s wishes while being independent in thought, and Petersen conveys this.
Pastor Manders is controlling. He has a stake in several of “Ghost’s” characters, the wily construction worker, Engstrand, a wastrel Manders has worked with to get past his drunkenness and destructively corrupt ways, and Engstrand’s daughter, Regina, for whom he has secured a comfortable position as a maid and companion in Mrs. Alving’s home. He wants his favors returned in the form of obedience to his wishes. He would also like to command Mrs. Alving, but she is not inclined to take orders and subtly allows Manders to be a kind of advisor, treated respectfully and with some regard for his intelligence, but at a distance and with a posture that declares who in their relationship maintains the upper hand.
The Engstrands, played by Peter DeLaurier and Mary Tuomanen, are the characters who will force Mrs. Alving to deal with decisions she made much earlier in all of their lifetimes and that concern every one of them.
How the audience learns about the complexities Mrs. Alving brought into being influences how affecting a production of “Ghosts” will be. Ken Marini opts for the direct approach. Nothing sidles in. News is delivered with a punch, flatly like a gauntlet thrown at an adversary’s feet. Everyone must react severely to each bygone act with which Mrs. Alving is involved. This includes information she receives from her beloved son, Oswald, visiting from Paris where he has lived since Mrs. Alving sent him to boarding school there.
Marini leaves his characters no time for subtlety, no times to explore how to react in way that isn’t defensive or confrontational. Mrs. Alving is constantly stripped of her veneer, but Petersen has little chance to summon the charm, hauteur, or dauntlessness she displayed in earlier scenes and that have seen her through so far. Every revelation is a salvo accompanied by a metaphoric drum roll that gives Mrs. Alving little choice but to counterattack, so the logic of her actions is lost in the tone in which she has to explain them. Mrs. Alving’s world and pretenses have to be shattered, but the direct approach takes away some of the pain and the emotion from Ibsen’s play. It renders it bald and without facets. The drama becomes harsh and literal rather than a poignant look at how a woman’s carefully and reasonably plotted manipulations return to destroy the order she’s built by making sure only she knew all the details that were crucial to several lives, particularly Regina Engstrand’s and her son’s. The role of Mrs. Alving is diminished by so blatant a barrage of her follies. We need to see her become resigned and collapse under the weight of accusations we know are true, if justifiable given what we know of Engstrand and Mrs. Alving’s revered late husband, a sea captain of renown and a community leader following his military service. With subtlety gone, the grace of Ibsen’s play disappears. It too seems heavy-handed and given to strong reaction as opposed to a measured falling apart of everyone’s world, the Pastor’s, Regina’s, and Oswald’s in addition to Mrs. Alving’s. Ibsen also gives a sense of how that world will continue. His plan has more dramatic weight if all of the characters, barring Engstrand, whose cunning survival instincts will always see him through, accept all that has happened, take a minute to grieve or regret or rue the past, nod their heads, and go forward to their futures no matter what they’ve lost or gained in Ibsen’s litany of discoveries.
At People’s Light, the drama was taken from “Ghosts.” Marini’s production is more melodramatic, aimed more towards making audiences gasp at one more revelation than establishing concern for all of the characters, even the spoiled Oswald and canny Engstrand, and letting people see the aftermath of a life that is not as solid and orderly as it seems because it was built on illusions and secret arrangements that don’t bear up well in the light of day.
The straightforwardness of Marini’s staging allows audiences to see the mechanics of Ibsen’s play and Wilson’s adaptation, but at the expense of dramatic intensity or an atmosphere pregnant with a strange combination of remorse and resolution. What is gained in clarity is lost in the lack of emotion this production of “Ghosts” engenders. You watch the show intellectuality and form opinions about what is going on, but you never have your feeling stirred or form an attitude about a character, except perhaps for Pastor Manders, whom Peakes endows with such self-righteousness you wonder how anyone could bear his company let alone go to him for counsel or solace or give him access to their house.
The plot and ideas in “Ghosts” come through, but the experience of becoming acquainted with them is not that much different from reading the play. As I mentioned, “Ghosts” is difficult to mount. That arresting sense of dread and anticipation of more calamity is hard to establish. Shading the characters so they are not obvious or transparent is another challenge. Only Peter DeLaurier, as Engstrand, makes you consider whether you are judging the crafty old bird fairly until he finally proves the man’s mischievous side once and for all.
“Ghosts” has a lot of threads that need to be carefully woven for the play to have its full effect. I’ve seen it about eight times, including the Broadway production that starred Liv Ullmann, and I’ve never seen it work completely.
Once Ibsen begins concentrating on the characters’ pasts, lots of ghosts, skeleton, specters, what have you, are unleashed. Much of the play revolves around an unseen character, the late Captain Alving, patriarch of both his family and his neighborhood, successful businessman, and benefactor, i n his lifetime and after through his wife to the village in which he lived and the town that is a ferry ride away from it.
Captain Alving is a military hero who became wise about finance and who was the political and social head of his region. The Alvings are considered to be a cut above anyone else in their midst. They evoke awe and respect. They stand for wealth, power, and class that establish the Alvings’ glamor but which also have been used for the good of both village and town folk. Pastor Manders, though young, has been instrumental in many of the Alvings’ projects. We meet him as he is settling business details about an orphanage Mrs. Alving has built at her husband’s instruction and in his name. Manders wants to get financial and insurance matters completed before the orphanage is open to the children who will benefit from the shelter and education it provides. These last administrative concerns cannot be left undone for much longer because, as Engstrand, who worked on the orphanage’s construction, reports, the building is finished and ready for occupancy.
Captain Alving may be the man he is reputed to be, but he is more. He was unfaithful to his wife, sired children with other women, and contracted venereal disease that led to his death. All of this Mrs. Alving endured to maintain her family’s status and position in its part of Norway.
In the course of keeping her husband’s misdeeds from becoming public, Mrs. Alving made arrangements that raise other, more metaphorical, ghosts. These primarily affect the Engstrands, the father and Regina.
Oswald, the person Mrs. Alving loves and wants to protect the most, also has to cope with one of his father’s legacies.
Romance, and even love, may also be thwarted by information that arises as Ibsen clears the Alving manse of all secrecy, deception, and chicanery during the course of “Ghosts.”
You see how complex a production would have to be to comprise all Ibsen provides in a neat, tidy package. Marini seems to concentrate on Mrs. Alving’s protection of her husband’s reputation and the choices she made, choices that involve several others, to preserve it. The approach has potential and is refreshing because most productions of “Ghosts” center on Mrs. Alving’s relationship with Oswald. As noted, Marini’s approach stales quickly because it becomes too literal, too much to the point, and loses mood, depth, and emotion. Its plainness takes away interest because there’s nothing for the audience to be tense about, and much that should elicit feeling is matter-of-factly noted.
The difference is when Peter DeLaurier is on stage. While his castmates competently go through motions, DeLaurier creates a nuanced character. When doesn’t he? From the beginning of the play, which opens with Engstrand surprising Regina in the Alving parlor, you can tell Engstrand is a conniver who always has an unstated agenda no matter how directly he asks for something or raises a point.
There’s wiliness is DeLaurier’s eyes and posture. You can see him thinking. You also catch Mary Tuomanen as Regina wondering what her father is really about as she resists and call to assist or heed him.
In all of his scenes, DeLaurier takes time before he tips Engstrand’s hand. Even though you know he’s up to something, DeLaurier keeps thing a tad mysterious. His asides and winks to other characters give more away than his direct dialogue. Just as you begin to think better of Engstrand because of the sincerity with which DeLaurier plays a scene in which it’s clear he’s an unwitting participant in one of Mrs. Alving’s machinations, DeLaurier shows the scoundrel’s true colors in a subsequent scene in which he whispers something potentially incriminating to his daughter.
I did have one nagging question about DeLaurier’s performance. He is the first in the production to speak, and when he does, he gives Engstrand a Western twang. At first, I thought maybe Lanford Wilson moved “Ghosts” to America, but later dialogue kiboshed that idea. The program says the play is set in Western Norway, but I didn’t know an American Western tone prevailed there. No one else in the “Ghosts” cast speaks with any particular dialect at all. A puzzlement!
Kathryn Petersen has dignity as Mrs. Alving. In early scenes, she also has fun playing Mrs. Alving’s naughtiness of sorts by being a free thinker and one who doesn’t take the conventions of society as seriously as someone of her stature in the community might be expected to do. Her later scenes are less varied. Mrs. Alving is the giver of information she has kept to herself for decades. Most of her planning has been for the best, and she doesn’t like unraveling all at once, but Petersen doesn’t get to play all of the facets of Mrs. Alving. Much remains on the surface, and in this “Ghosts,” Mrs. Alving has to be ready to defend herself and take blame instead of having the chance to be sympathetic in that most of what she engineered seemed right and without future peril for all concerned at the moment.
Ian Merrill Peakes is a commanding and rigid Pastor Manders, more rigid than you would expect the man who took Engstrand under wing to be. He barks orders at Regina and Engstrand. He holds Oswald at a distance. Though he is longtime friend, business associate, and pastor to Mrs. Alving, he treats her with no warmth, no familiarity that would come from a long relationship and is a staple of Ibsen plays.
Peakes’s Manders is so bossy and strident, it’s a wonder a congregation follows him or that he’s attained such an important position in the village and town, a position reinforced by his frequent working with the Alvings. In one bit that is meant to be humorous but comes out to be annoying, Manders moves books he deems radical and unseemly from Mrs. Alving’s coffee table to her sideboard, as if it is his right to approve Mrs. Alving’s reading choices or philosophical bent. In an Alfonse-Gaston routine, Mrs. Alving moves them back to the table only to have Manders return them to the sideboard. This goes on for about four passes and has the opposite effect from what I’d guess what intended.
Keith Conallen tries to give some nuance to Oswald, particular in the scene in which he speaks frankly to his mother about symptoms he is having and what illness he believes they indicate. Marini doesn’t seem to give this sequence the time and breadth is need to play out. It is Oswald’s crucial scene with his mother, and it is given the space to attain its proper weight. Oswald is usually so focal to a production of “Ghosts,” it seems odd that Conallen always seems to be trying to squeeze Oswald into his mother’s life and notice. In dress and in manners, Conallen shows that Oswald, who went to school and lives in Paris, is different from his Norwegian friends and relatives. To little avail. Oswald registers as the least important character in this staging.
Mary Tuomanen, so sharp in Theatre Exile’s “Cock,” seems too modern in voice and approach as Regina. She seems to react to her father more as a contemporary woman would. Her lines may be Ibsen’s, but her attitude is 21st century American, another reason why, during the first scene between Engstrand and Regina, I had an impression, a wrong one, that Wilson had brought “Ghosts” to the U.S.
One sequence in the production illustrates the lack of consistency in some scenes. A calamity in the village causes everyone in the Alving home to race to the scene of the catastrophe, Mrs. Alving and Regina more to extract Oswald from the mayhem than because of their own curiosity or interest. When they return, Mrs. Alving notes that Oswald went into the rainy night without an overcoat. She does this when she’s just returned from the outdoors, and neither she nor Regina are wearing coats and don scarves that would neither absorb nor wick the rain. Also, when Oswald reappears from surveying the debacle in the village, he is wet, but no one else who was out in the same rain is.
As always, James F. Pyne, Jr. created and built a lovely set for a People’s Light production. The various porches and indoor areas Pyne conceived are perfect for Mrs. Alving’s home and makes for some interesting entrances and exits.
Marla Jurglanis is another whose work at People’s Light is consistenly good. Her costumes are entirely appropriate, and her suit for Oswald shows a difference in tailoring that indicates he did not obtain it in Norway.
“Ghosts” runs though Sunday, February 9 at People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Rd. (just south of Route 30 West on Route 401), in Malvern, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. Sundays Jan. 26 and Feb. 9, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. No matinee is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 8. Tickets range from $46 to $26 and can be ordered by calling 610-644-3500 or going online to www.peopleslight.org.