There is no question the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen, who wrote in the late 1800’s, was a great and prophetic playwright. This is especially true of his plays, “A Doll’s House” and “Hedda Gabler,”which featured strong independent women who were generations ahead of their time.
His play, “Ghosts,” which is at Williamstown Theatre Festival through August 18, has some moments of that visionary power. However, because of an overly-intellectual translation, stilted direction and a passive performance by the lead male actor, this effort is dull and laborious.
Uma Thurman does find the intelligence and stately nature of the leading character, the wealthy widow Mrs. Helene Alving. In the ten years since her husband died she’s protected an image of him as an upstanding moral man who was a caring husband and father. Her lies have consequences. In truth, he was a dissolute philanderer who carried social diseases of a sexual nature and passed them onto his son at birth. He also fathered an illegitimate daughter, Regina, who now works for the Alving family.
When her artist son, Oswald, returns home after years of carousing, he thinks he contracted the disease through his own liberated life style. He knows he will likely die young from a painful, debilitating disease. Oswald believes if he marries Regina, who is also ignorant of their relationship, she will be a comforting companion in his dying years.
Mrs. Alving is forced to tell the truth to everyone about her husband’s true character. After realizing he cannot marry Regina, Oswald convinces his mother to help euthanize him, when the time comes.
Director Carey Perloff encourages the play to be dominated by the darkness of their lives. With the exception of the theatrical Oswald, the characters all speak in monotone as they look inward at their dreary past, sad present and dismal future.
This places a weight on the production that obscures the ideas that Ibsen was espousing. His point is that not to expose the lies of the past is to perpetuate them.
They are the “ghosts” we carry with us. A positive life cannot come until we recognize, dismiss, and take action against the things that cause us pain.
Uma Thurman comes the closest to achieving the power that comes through an honest appraisal of life. She is a calm, regal figure who understands how defending her husband’s reputation has done more harm than good, and she embraces truth as a way to correct and to atone.
However, hers is not a complete portrait, mostly because she is not given a strong adversary with whom to play off. Most of the first act she debates Pastor Manders, the most influential man in the community.
He is a self-righteous individual who is convinced in his beliefs that appearances are as important as is truth, women are subservient creatures and that pleasure is a sign of corruption.
Played by Bernard White, Paster Manders seems more a naive fool rather than a powerful opponent to free thought. Combined with his rigid thinking, the man’s lack of virility makes Helene’s romantic attraction to this unworthy individual appear as weak as is he.
The scenes between the two take on a cerebral tone rather than being a passionate discourse between two strong individuals.
Supporting performances are more of the same. Tom Pecinka does best as he finds the heightened emotions of Oswald; Catherine Combs is a passive Regina, while Thom Sesma as Jakob, Regina’s assumed father, does everything except twirl a mustache to show scheming.
There is another figure on stage throughout the show.
Enclosed in a large space, taking up about half the rear stage is David Coulter performing his own compositions on a variety of instruments, including glasses and a saw. The underscoring is, at times, mood enhancing but more often the concept is annoying and distracting.
“Ghosts” lives up to its title. It is a shadowy, ill-defined production.
“Ghosts” at Williamstown Theatre Festival through August 18. For tickets and schedule information call 413-458-3253 and wtfestival.org
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
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