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Ghosts                  Geva Theatre Center, 2002

Mark Liu - Democrat and Chronicle

Streamline the work of an already potent playwright like Henrik Ibsen and you get taut, solid theatre that never sags.  Geva Theatre’s sleek adaptation of Ghosts, a play that was too scandalous to be performed when Ibsen wrote it in 1881, is well suited to a contemporary audience and extremely well executed.

Gone now is the shock of material that suggests hypocrisy in the church, the consequences of venereal disease and the importance of personal joy above societal duty.  But imagining the Victorian culture that would have been scandalized is a fascinating exploration of the past.

The play hits its key themes head-on, and quickly.  Immediately we see a snarling exchange between Regina Engstrand and her wayward father.  Clearly, theirs is a strained relationship, and much of the play's suspense lies in the uncovering of truths that explain why.

Regina is a servant to Mrs. Alving, who is about to dedicate a countryside orphanage in western Norway to her deceased husband.  Mrs. Alving must workout the final details with Pastor Manders, but their relationship, too, is strained from much history.  Mrs. Alving is a free-thinker, which launches the pastor on a series of personal sermons: “What would become of society if everyone made up his own mind about things?" he asks her, without irony.

The more he pushes, the more Mrs. Alving is forced to tell the truth: about her happy marriage, about her son who has returned home from bohemian Paris for a surprise visit, about the excruciating decisions she has made in her life.  The actors must make those truths weigh as heavily on their characters’ beings as the relentless rain that falls as a back drop to the pale, depressive set. Across the board, they succeed. Dan Kremer as the pastor is especially strong.  He is stern and slow in his movements—a rock of dogmatic stubbornness.  Laura Esterman as Mrs. Alving is flightier, with the vaguely disheveled mannerisms of one struggling to keep the past—the ghosts of her life—

from overwhelming her.

And the others, too—Saxon Palmer as Mrs. Alving’s son, Alisha McKinney as Regina and James Gale as her father—do just enough to show the trouble seething beneath their public selves.

The acting is so important, because Ghosts isn’t about sparkling dialogue or action.  It’s about fact and illusion and how they shape people and twist their relations—in religion, in families and in their own psyches.  Conveying those effects takes subtlety and restraint. Director Tim Ocel and the cast get it right, and it makes all the difference.  It makes Ghosts a truly haunting experience.

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Dan Kremer



Geva Theatre Center


Photo: Ken Huth