When Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts premiered in 1882, critics and audiences alike decried it as a work of moral turpitude. That reaction seems a far cry based on the tame staging it receives as part of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Presented here in a cloyingly colloquial translation by Paul Walsh and under Carey Perloff’s largely indifferent direction, the play exists somewhere between melodrama and soap opera, more likely to provoke giggles than gasps.
Ibsen certainly knew how to craft a stirring social drama. The sounds of Nora Helmer’s slamming door and Hedda Gabler’s gunshot still reverberate throughout history, and strong recent productions have returned lesser-known works like The Wild Duck and The Master Builder to the theatrical conversation. By rights, Ghosts and its austere heroine, Mrs. Helene Alving, deserve a place of honor in the playwright’s canon.
The play itself takes up the theme that permeates most of Ibsen’s works—chiefly, the demand that an individual subjugate herself to the expectations of society, and the irreparable harm that can follow. Depending on the will of the central figure under consideration, this can lead to liberation (A Doll’s House) or destruction (Hedda Gabler). Ghosts gives you a smattering of both, as its five characters find themselves alternately unbound by and unable to enact the roles assigned them.
Ibsen further skewered the bourgeoisie and their stiff upper lips by introducing a cornucopia of indelicate subjects—including adultery, incest, suicide, and venereal disease—into their polite conversation. The echoes of these indiscretions remain somewhat transgressive even by today’s standards. Mrs. Alving’s barely concealed lust for the rigidly righteous Pastor Manders, and her almost sexual attraction to her son Oswald, paint her as a woman who simultaneously conforms to and rejects the societal norms foisted upon her—or at least uses them to her advantage whenever possible.
Yet the work has lost much of its sting in the ensuing century, and attempts by Walsh and Perloff to contemporize it only make the once razor-sharp edge seem especially dulled. Although the production uses period sets and costumes (both designed by Dane Laffrey), the language and manner of the performers have twenty-first century twangs to them, and the crude vernacular hangs heavily in the characters’ mouths. When Walsh tries for ornateness, it only reinforces the overall hoariness of the play, in which the galvanic revelations of the final act are signposted from almost the first moment.
Perloff fails to imbue the proceedings with an appropriate air of suspense. Instead, she commissioned composer David Coulter to create a percussive soundtrack that underscores nearly every moment of the production’s two hours, suggesting to the audience how it should receive each earth-shattering disclosure. The music—which Coulter performs live, in full view of the actors and spectators—is often arresting, frequently resembling a Bernard Herrmann Hitchcock score, with tense, jittery pitches that refuse to neatly resolve. But I can’t shake the sense that it too often does the actors’ work for them.
Uma Thurman’s Mrs. Alving is the main attraction here, and as with her inauspicious Broadway debut in The Parisian Woman two seasons ago, she proves a stiff stage actor. The qualities that have made her a luminous presence on film over the past three decades—an elegant bearing and icy countenance that betray deep wells of feeling—should make her perfect in the part of a woman stifled by society, but they don’t seem to translate harmoniously to live performance. Instead, she tends to strike poses and say her lines with minimal inflection, suggesting a meaning known only to her. Her interactions with Oswald (a frenetic, one-note Tom Pecinka) and Manders (a curiously wiry Bernard White) are hardly distinguishable.
Among the cast, only Thom Sesma strikes the right note of hard-edged realism. As Jakob Engstrand, a laborer who has spent his life in grudging service to the ruling class, he offers the second sight that comes with observing how horribly the privileged set behave toward themselves and others. His tense interactions with his daughter Regina (a too-contemporary Catherine Combs), who works as Mrs. Alving’s maid, and with the reproachful Pastor Manders contain a caustic tension otherwise missing from the production. Yet the success of this one performance stresses the lack of backstory and connection elsewhere.
The spectral figures that give the play its title refer to both literal ghosts—like Mrs. Alving’s philandering late husband and Engstrand’s mistreated wife—and figurative ones. The latter are the beliefs that a culture holds on to without examination, in the name of keeping up appearances. Ibsen took great pleasure in eviscerating those mores. Here, unfortunately, appearances are all we get.