God and the Law

Who knew all Ibsen needed was a bit of menace?  A little over a year ago, BAM presented the Young Vic’s stellar production of A Doll’s House, which tore off the play’s moralizing veneer and exposed a domestic thriller more akin to Hitchcock than Shaw.  Now we have Ghosts, which begins in much the same manner, with Jacob Engstrand (Brian McCardie), a crippled carpenter, circling his daughter Regina (Charlene McKenna) like a wounded hyena.  He snatches at her dress, palms her face, and jerks in sharp, animalistic movements despite his maimed foot.  When Pastor Manders (Will Keen), a duty-obsessed clergyman, enters to speak with Regina, he aims to send her back to her father’s house.  Though much of the play’s comedy comes from Manders’ provincial conservatism, here at least he is more terrifying than terrified.

Ghosts, however, is not really about Engstrand or Regina, but Helene Alving (Lesley Manville), the widow of the deceased, publicly respected Captain Alving, and their son, Oswald (Billy Howle), a painter who has recently returned home from Paris.  Oswald’s creativity has stunted with the onset of syphilis, which will eventually “soften” his brain, and he blames his rather muted bohemian lifestyle, not realizing that his father was in fact a drunk and a libertine who passed the disease on to his child.  In Regina, their intelligent but unassuming maid, he sees his salvation—unaware that she is the illegitimate daughter of Captain Alving.

Of all the persisting social realists of the late nineteenth century, Ibsen has staled the most.  Ghosts attracted a controversy incomparable to anything we might find today, and its critics scrambled to find the language appropriate to this assault on religion, morals, and public decency.  Needless to say, that effect has faded, and what is left are its characters.  Ms. Manville is terrific as Helen, her stony face more exhausted than determined, her eyes thin but puffy.  And Mr. McCardie, with his guttural rasp, offers some of this production’s best moments in finding a boorish sexual tension between Jacob and the beautiful woman who is not really his child.

But Ghosts, perhaps, does not have the same potential as A Doll’s House, and the admirable atmosphere (in a large part due to Tim Hatley’s ethereal design) does not sustain the play for its entire runtime; too much is bogged down in an ethics that Ibsen would have found heinous but we are made to find simply foreign.  True, director Richard Eyre should be seriously applauded for reducing Ghosts to a trim ninety minutes (we should all so liberally bring our scissors to Ibsen), and at times his revival is truly compelling, but he still cannot quite find the terror that would make this affecting today.

Ghosts runs through May 3rd at the BAM Harvey Theater.  651 Fulton Street  Brooklyn, NY.  1 hour 30 minutes.  No intermission.

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Aaron Botwick

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