All works of art garner different responses with the passage of time, and Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts is no exception. The things that made it shocking in 1881 are barely noteworthy now. Prostitution? Incest? Mistaken paternity? Cohabiting couples? STDs? Nothing modern audiences haven’t seen before, and certainly nothing to take to the streets over. But that’s exactly what happened when what scholar Ross Shideler calls the most “Ibsenian” of Ibsen’s plays first opened. The realistic treatment of the seamy side of an ostensibly upstanding family turned audiences off, angering all the same people who’d been horrified that Ibsen had his characters do things such as leave their family (A Doll’s House) or commit suicide (Hedda Gabler).
Young painter Osvald Alving has returned from Paris to the ancestral manse just in time for the dedication of an orphanage built in his father’s memory. But something is awry out in the sticks: By the end of the play, more will lay in ashes than a piece of uninsured property. Secrets abound about Osvald’s parents, the prim Pastor Manders, the maid Regina, and particularly about Osvald, whose brain is euphemistically “softening.” The disease that never dares speak its name here is syphilis, which was to Ibsen’s time as AIDS is to ours. While it was the most striking part of the story a hundred-plus years ago, today the play can be viewed more holistically, and it still holds up and has riches to offer.
Ghosts includes themes familiar to anyone who has seen or read Ibsen’s work. The most obvious is his inherent feminism. Although he would later claim not to be a feminist, Ibsen wrote frequently — and sympathetically — about women trapped by circumstance and society. Some less obvious parallels include a disdain for religion and an interest in Darwinism. Ibsen’s plays frequently recount a struggle between a rigidly moral universe and a looser, more “natural” one; the latter known as Darwinistic or biocentric. Such is the case here, where the old ways (personified by prissy Pastor Manders) butt heads with the new (championed by the Alvings).
Ibsen also can be funny. Here, as we’ve seen in the recent ACT production of A Doll’s House, there are some very witty moments in otherwise dour, serious works. In this production, helmed by guest director Jonathan Moscone, most of those moments are in the able hands of Cal Shakes favorite Brian Keith Russell as the drunken Jakob Engstrad and the wonderful Ellen McLaughlin, whose matriarch Helene Alving overflows with bonhomie and grief in equal measure. Davis Duffield, a student from the ACT conservatory program, is on loan as freewheeling Osvald, a vibrantly physical presence offsetting the proper stiffness of Emily Ackerman’s Regina and James Carpenter’s Pastor Manders.
On opening night, the usually accomplished Ackerman seemed a bit too stiff, and it’s hard to tell whether this was a deliberate choice, meant to represent Regina’s extreme obedience to the family for whom she works, despite her desire to yield to Osvald. Whatever the case, Ackerman’s final epiphany was brilliantly handled. Moscone is the artistic director over at Cal Shakes, and it shows in his staging of what might be a tiny story in someone else’s hands. Besides a few little pieces of furniture, the music, sound effects, and set pieces are all oversized. The monolithic scale of the walls, doors, and windows, combined with the dramatic shadows cast by Scott Zielinski’s lighting, dwarf the actors to powerful effect and reinforce the notion that every family is plagued by ghosts.