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The Rousuck Review: "Ghosts" At Everyman Theatre

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Stan Barouh
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This week, theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck has been to see Ghosts playing through May 3rd at Everyman Theatre

Here's her review: 

Assisted suicide. Sexually transmitted disease. Conservative religious hypocrites. No, we’re not talking about the Maryland General Assembly, or experiments in Guatemala, or a Bill Maher documentary.

We’re talking about a play written in Norway in 1881 -- Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts.” It was scandalous material back then. And it remains disturbing and timely, as Everyman Theatre’s new production proves. The final scene brought an audience member seated near me to tears.

This despite a translation by Nicholas Rudall that’s a tad too euphemistic – even for a play set in the Victorian era.

I credit part of the audience member’s reaction to Deborah Hazlett’s strong portrayal of Mrs. Helene Alving, the play’s protagonist. Mrs. Alving is one of Ibsen’s forward-thinking, self-actualized heroines.

Not only has she survived a bad marriage, she’s become an astute businesswoman. She’s also become an astute spin doctor. She has upheld her late husband’s sterling reputation, only now revealing to her clergyman, Pastor Manders, that her husband was a lifelong “degenerate” -- the term applied by their doctor.

“Ghosts” takes place 10 years after Captain Alving’s death. Mrs. Alving has built an orphanage that is about to be dedicated in his memory. She’s become a well-to-do woman in her own right and has put all of the money her husband brought to the marriage into the orphanage.

It’s Mrs. Alving’s attempt to lay him to rest once and for all, and to keep her son, Osvald, from inheriting anything from his shameful father. But when Osvald – an artist who has been living in Paris -- comes home for the dedication, he carries a legacy Mrs. Alving never imagined.

In “Ghosts,” the sins of the father have physical, as well as psychological, ramifications for the son. And living a lie – even a lie believed to be in the best interests of family and community – has consequences as well. So does maintaining a stance of inflexible, sanctimonious piety.

Pastor Manders has achieved this stance through naiveté, gullibility and turning a blind eye. James Whalen keeps this unbending pastor from becoming a caricature by focusing on his earnestness, however misguided. He chastises Mrs. Alving for the “great failure of her life” – daring to escape her “duties” as wife and mother, no matter the circumstances.

Although there are only five characters in “Ghosts,” Ibsen managed to portray a wide swath of society including representatives of home and family, the church, the arts and the working class. Director Donald Hicken makes the distinctions between these social strata clear and their connections credible.

Bruce Randolph Nelson is especially effective as a workman who is wilier than he appears – particularly when it comes to getting what he wants from the pastor.

Nelson’s laborer may be the only character that comes away from “Ghosts” unscathed, perhaps because he has always acknowledged the ghosts haunting his life. He doesn’t try to adhere to society’s strictures or pretend to be what he’s not.

Designer Daniel Ettinger’s set includes a hint of the trouble creeping into the Alving household. There’s dead ivy attached to the woodwork in the Alvings’ prim Victorian parlor. Even weeds have succumbed in this repressive atmosphere.

Though “Ghosts” has its share of life-and-death revelations, Nicholas Rudall’s conversational translation and Donald Hicken’s subtle direction avoid the pitfall of overstatement – at times at the risk of downplaying crucial plot points.

But pay attention, and Everyman’s “Ghosts” will leave you thinking much more about recent headlines than about Victorian Norway. More than a century later, Ibsen’s ghost story still has the power to scare us.

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years.