BWW Review: GHOSTS at Williamstown Theatre Festival Proves to be Fresh and Remarkably Relevant.
Henrik Ibsen is often ranked as one of the most distinguished playwrights in the European tradition. He has been described as "a profound poetic dramatist-the best since Shakespeare". He is widely regarded as the foremost playwright of the nineteenth century. He influenced other playwrights and novelists such as George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Miller, James Joyce, and Eugene O'Neill. His best-known work includes A Doll's House, Hedda Gabler, and The Master Builder. Ibsen wrote his plays in Danish during the late 1800s.
With great happiness, Mrs. Alving (Golden Globe winner and Academy Award
nominee Uma Thurman) welcomes her painter son Oswald (Tom Pecinka) home from years of living abroad. But when he starts to flirt with the family maid (Catherine Combs), she must intercede to save her son and herself from scandals present and past. Mrs. Alving struggles to find joy in a life bound by the strictures of Pastor Manders (Bernard White) and the spectral chains of mistakes from long ago. Ibsen's vivid and passionate play asks - even now - how far a woman, caught between duty and desire, can or should go to protect that which she values and holds dear.
This production with the new translation is notably fresh and remarkably relevant. To WTF's Artistic Director, Mandy Greenfield's credit it is another excellent inclusion in a rich and diverse season. The language is contemporary and easy to follow, understand, and relate to. The subject matter, which includes religion, venereal disease, incest, and euthanasia, questions accepted social practices and norms. Possibly surprising the audience and most definitely stirring up debate. Where most tragedies deal mainly with the unhappy consequences of breaking the moral code, GHOSTS deals with the consequences of not breaking it. The parallels between the material written 138 years ago and events currently playing out in the US and across the world are stunning and undeniable.
Thom Sesma's performance of Jakob Engstrand is spot on. The creep factor resonates from the stage as we watch him deftly apply the tools of hypocrisy and deceit to manipulate others as well as circumstances to gain personal power and prestige. The very same tools Pastor Manders, well-played with generous amounts of pious idealism by Bernard White, accepts and uses to justify prevailing social
principles and norms. The Pastor is unwavering and steadfast in his commitment, conviction, and desperation to cling to convention even in the face of factual information that dispels his deeply held beliefs. He condemns Mrs Alving for her "missteps" as both a wife and mother, dismissing her behavior (heavily influenced by love and duty) in the face of an unsupportive, self-absorbed, and "depraved" husband as "hysterical". He brushes off and excuses the, now deceased husband's adulterous and inappropriate behavior as "youthful" much in the way some recent events have been termed "locker room talk" or perhaps, the actions of "fine people on both sides".
The power in this presentation falls squarely on the broad and ample shoulders of Mrs. Alving, flawlessly portrayed by Uma Thurman. She calls the Pastor out on his "assumptions" and responds to his allegations with facts. Although Manders seeks to credit his own personal "strength and conviction that allowed him to save her" and return her to "the lawful order of things", she remains committed to her truth and admonishes the Pastor that "the lawful order of things is the cause of all unhappiness".
The innocent and unfortunate victims in the
battle between truth versus ideals are the children. Regina Engstarnd and Oswald Alving adeptly played by Catherine Combs and Tom Pecinka respectively. Each is unwittingly and deeply affected by sins of the father. Their angst in the face of abandonment and neglect by self-absorbed adults doing what they thought best is deeply felt and justified. Those sins of the father come home to roost and are well summed up when Regina flees the scene in humiliation and disgrace leaving Oswald who admonishes his mother stating that he "cannot concern himself with others. I am not a well man and it is so much to worry about myself".
The creative team includes Carey Perloff (Director), Dane Laffrey (Scenic Design & Costume Design) whose interesting and unique set and beautiful costuming are both noteworthy, James F. Ingalls (Lighting Design), Beth Lake (Sound Design), and David Coulter (Composer/Musician) whose use of unconventional materials and instruments during the performance provides an additional element that is complementary, enjoyable, and helps to keep the audience engaged.