The faces may change, but the expressions stay the same. Watching Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts and Governor Spitzer’s press conferences this week, it’s become clear that sometimes forced stoicism and suppressed emotions are a more tragic sight than tears. In Ghosts, it’s the face of Mrs. Alving, the widow of a secretly immoral, but publicly respected man, and on Monday, it was the face of Silda Wall Spitzer as she listened to her husband address his connection to a prostitution ring. The obvious parallels between theater and current events point to the timelessness of Ibsen’s work. Regge Life, the director of Ghosts now at the Pearl Theater, highlights this trait in his notes to the play and presents his production in a simple, stripped down manner that allows the raw emotions and humanity of the 19th century text to shine through its age. Yes, people can actually say the word “syphilis” out loud now. Yes, women sometimes leave the jerks they’ve married (almost hourly if you watch Lifetime). Yet even though the work has lost its shock value, the words and behaviors of the characters still ring true.
As Mrs. Alving, Joanne Camp wears a sunken expression that shows slight hints of mourning and exhaustion. Mrs. Alving’s life of enduring her husband’s adultery, alcoholism, and hypocrisy has taken its toll. Though Camp speaks in a controlled deadpan that suggests fortitude, she’s almost always propping herself up – clutching the top of a chair while she stands, digging each fist into the couch as she sits – as if needing constant support to simply stay upright.
The trickle-down effects of scandal can be devastating. While Mrs. Alving has tried to manage her husband’s mistakes, they still threaten to wreck several lives after his death. The victims include their son, Osvald (John Behlmann), who has inherited insanity-inducing syphilis from his father, and the household’s maid, Regina (Keiana Richard), whose true parentage has been kept hidden from her.
The cast is at its finest when the characters seem as though they’re trying to behave contrary to their thoughts. Whether it’s Mrs. Alving trying to hold herself together as she comes apart or the gradual decay of Osvald’s sunny façade, the actors make the slightest glance or tone revealing.
As Ghosts heavily focuses on keeping up appearances, this approach is appropriate. Although Mrs. Alving hates her husband, she’s erecting an orphanage in his honor (though a hidden agenda accompanies this). For this task, she’s enlisted the help of Pastor Manders, who acts as an advisor on finances, legal matters, and anything else he deems in need of advising (which, it becomes evident, is everything). In one of his many didactic speeches, Pastor Manders says, “there are many occasions in life when one must rely upon the opinions of others.” He then asks, “How else would society continue?”
Manders (Tom Galantich) and Jakob Engstrand (TJ Edwards), the bum whom we initially believe to be Regina’s father, are likely the characters most concerned with social mores, but for different reasons. While the Pastor endlessly preaches the importance of public opinion, Engstrand endlessly exploits it.
As conservatism has become a favorite punching bag for the arts community, the Manders character is ripe for a few jabs. Galantich, however, delivers his indignant declarations with an earnestness that allows them to be amusing to a modern audience, while still being faithful to their historical context. Whether he’s in complete preacher mode, making a fiery case against “illicit relationships” or flabbergasted that Engstrand tricked him into putting falsehoods into the church register (he gives a good gasp or two), his pompous pastor is dead-on.
Although Manders is slow to respect or trust women, he allows Engstrand to manipulate him at every turn, with debilitating results. As Engstrand, Edwards speaks in monologues that, though full of stutters and deferential nods to the ground, are as slick as his greasy hair. He so deftly plays the hustler that he even seems a bit innocent at the play’s beginning. While Regina berates him for his foolishness, her anger doesn’t seem to match the harmless man we first meet. Only as the play progresses does Edwards allow an occasional smile or gleeful aside to show Engstrand’s true self.
When this production treats the theme of the past haunting the present as a subtle, lingering presence, the tension is discomforting and heartbreaking. The mood set by Camp’s slow actions and speech is enhanced by Harry Feiner’s gloomy set and Stephen Petrilli’s foggy lighting of the backdrop. As Mrs. Alving slowly reveals each of her husband’s sins, the fog around the rear stage even seems to spread.
In the second act, everyone’s ghosts come to the forefront. While the consequential raising of volume and tempers isn’t quite as chilling as the whispered secrets and deceitful interactions, the earlier scenes make the climax’s departure from politeness all the more powerful.
After Mrs. Alving and Osvald fiercely argue over a dramatic request, the play returns to its previous hushed tones. The final scene – a mother silently weeping at her son’s side – resonates far more loudly than any shout that came before. It is truly haunting.