Rarely performed in New York, “Ghosts” is known by many merely as “Ibsen’s syphilis play.” But as the Pearl Theater’s engrossing production proves, it’s a scorching dissection of how hypocrisy and deceit destroy societies. The once-scandalous appearance of venereal disease is just a literal manifestation of the forces tearing across the stage.
Many modern directors — Ivo Von Hove, for example — push the symbolism in Ibsen’s quasi-realistic dramas to the foreground, replacing stuffy living rooms with gray walls covered in dead flowers. That approach can work, but so can helmer Regge Life’s method. His actors just deliver their lines, without showy emotion, and trust Ibsen’s wit and formal genius to entice us.
Peter Watts’ 1964 translation also helps. It gives Mrs. Alving (Joanne Camp) stubborn energy as she tells her longtime friend Pastor Manders (Tom Galantich) that the orphanage she’s building to honor her late husband will be her last lie on his behalf. And Manders sounds charmingly naive as he sputters that a man who seemed so righteous could not have been secretly debauched.
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All the characters are hiding something, of course. The near-mystic power of their secrecy results in a fire at the orphanage, the infamous disease of Mrs. Alving’s son Osvald (John Behlmann), and the finale’s chilling moment of clarity.
We glean these disasters before the characters do. At first, Mrs. Alving has an air of exhausted superiority, as though she can barely stomach Manders’ ignorance. Even though the play puts clues all around her, her haughtiness blinds her to her own culpability in her family’s collapse.
The moment she grasps her mistakes — when Osvald asks for a terrible favor — Mrs. Alving rips off her armor. The late appearance of emotional frenzy is a satisfying payoff to the production’s steadily building intensity.
Every thesp manages a similar transformation. Playing a drunk with connections to the Alvers family, T.J. Edwards evolves from misfit to saint to manipulator. His performance is deliciously complicated, because as he reveals new layers, he retains elements of what he played before.
The shape of the perfs does deflate some early moments — when Osvald gropes the servant girl (Keiana Richard), Mrs. Alving’s horror is laughably low-key — but the overall effect is impressive.
Harry Feiner’s set is the only major misfire. It represents the back of the family garden room — which is supposed to have glass walls — with a shabbily painted backdrop that doesn’t suggest the outside world. With shrunken boundaries, the play resembles a chamber opera. We need to sense the far-reaching scope of its consequences.
Limits actually enhance Mark Huang’s sound design. Sound cues are rare enough to carry serious weight, and their scarcity drapes the rest of the production in electric silence. There are several moments when actors lock eyes and freeze in aggressive positions. Against their stillness and the otherwise quiet room, their words are thunderous.