Saturday, May 2, 2015

"Ghosts" - Sheer Brilliance

By Judd Hollander
Photos by Stephanie Berger

A woman trying desperately to exorcise the specters of her past finds instead they've returned full force in Richard Eyre's absolutely riveting adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts. This production, originally presented at the Almeida Theatre in London is now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Helene Alving (Lesley Manville), a widow who lives on a vast estate in a remote area, is getting ready for the dedication of an orphanage she had built to honor the memory of her late husband. Said ceremony to take place on the 10th anniversary of his passing. As Helene goes over the final preparations for the event, she’s also enjoying the company of her son Oswald (Billy Howle), a painter who's just returned after several years of living abroad. 

Helene sees in the orphanage a chance to finally walk away from the task that has occupied most of her adult life; that of keeping her husband's legacy as pure as possible. For while Mr. Alving was a much loved and respected member of the community, he was also an acoholic lecher who engaged in all manners of debuarchery, all while making Helene's life a living hell. Helene even tried to leave him at one point, but was ultimately convinced to return by Pastor Manders (Will Keen), who firmly believes that a wife's duty is to stand by her husband and help to make him a better man. Since that time, Helene has worked to keep her husband’s various predilictions secret, while sending her young son away so he would not be exposed to his father's influence.

However a new life may not yet be in the cards for Helene; with the effects of past decisions seemingly reappearing everywhere she turns. From her interactions with Manders, who is now her business advisor on the orphanage, to Oswald's flirtations with her maid Regina (Charlene McKenna), actions which eerily remind Helene of an assignation her husband had with their former maid in this very house, prior events and conversations continue to cast their ominous shadows. Especially since her son is carrying his own secret and may now need the mother he does not know very well more than ever for what is to follow.

In some ways, Ghosts is the antitheses of Ibsen's A Doll's House. There, a woman had to choose between living with her husband on his terms or being on her own. Here, we are shown the consequences of a woman who decided to stay where she was because, as Helene continually explains to Manders, she was and is "a coward". Afraid to leave her husband, afraid to let people know the truth about him even after his death and afraid to tell her son what kind of a man his father truly was, thus destroying the idolization Oswald has for him. 

Hugely controversial when it first came out, with its talk of sexually transmitted disease, as well as how woman are treated far more differently than men for what is basically the same moral offense - as shown through the reactions of Manders - Ghosts has lost none of its power. Thanks to Richard Eyre's superlative adaptation of the original text, as well as his excellent directorial work, the piece pulls no punches with more than enough blame, suffering and victims, innocent and otherwise, to go around until it is almost unbearable to watch. It also helps that these characters, many of whom seem more than a bit stereotypical when they first appear, are actually all nicely well rounded and all with a core of resolve and moral certainty that is tested, compromised and in some cases all but destroyed.

Manville works wonderfully as Helene. Saddled with the task of giving numerous expository speeches, she imbues them all with great passion, while showing Helene to be a woman of deep inner strength, managing to keep herself together despite suffering years of personal torment. She is also a woman who will do whatever she must in order to spare her son from the ultimate effects of her husband's legacy. Including adding to her own burden in order to relieve Oswald of his.

Keen is positively brilliant as Manders, a person to tries to find the moral high ground in everything he does, with a habit of hedging his bets so in case something does go wrong, he can convince himself he's not to blame. He's also someone ultimately brought down to earth by his own personal moral code - one which stresses the importance of honor and appearance above all else - as well as perhaps through a bit of divine intervention. Keen doing a great job in taking what could easily be a one-dimensional character and making him appear all too human.

Howle is very good as Oswald, the character at first seeming almost a bit of a throwaway plot device for both Helene and Regina to pin their hopes. Yet while pretty much in the background for the first two-thirds of the play, Oswald has his own understanding concerning what his future will be, he eventually exploding with a sort of angry yet resigned desperation over a situation in which he has only so much control.

Brian McCardie is very good as Jacob, a rough sort of fellow employed by Helene for some construction work at the orphanage. He's also a drunk, scoundrel and, in a bit of an ironic twist, a man who once made a somewhat honorable, if perhaps not morally correct decision and who refuses to be condemned for it now. He's also not afraid to use a little psychological blackmail to get what he wants. McKenna is fine as Regina, a woman who, like everyone else, wants the best for their own future, but also like most everyone else in this tale is destined to reap the benefits of a past she never quite understood.

Excellently presented and performed, Ghosts offers a searing look at human frailties and hypocrisy, along with a warning that no matter how hard one tries to conceal past events, they cannot stop their effects from finally and completely being felt.

Featuring Charlene McKenna (Regina Engstrand), Brian McCardie (Jacob Engstrand), Will Keen (Pastor Manders), Lesley Manville (Helene Alving), Billy Howle (Oswald Alving).

by Henrik Ibsen
Adapted and Directed by Richard Eyre
Design: Tim Hartley
Lighting: Peter Mumford
Sound: John Leonard
Casting: Cara Beckinsale CDG
Associate Director: Elena Araoz

Presented by Almeida Theatre and Sonia Friedman Productions

Brooklyn Academy of Music
Harvey Theatre
651 Fulton Street
Tickets: 718-636-4100 or
Running Time: 1 Hour, 45 Minutes, no intermission

Closes: May 3, 2015

No comments: