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Ibsen's Dead Issues

It's a struggle to make Ghosts seem scandalous in the age of August: Osage County.




Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts had its world premiere in Chicago in 1882, but since that single performance at the old Aurora Turner Hall on North Clark, it's been seen here far less frequently than other canonical works by the Norwegian master, such as A Doll's House. Certainly, no local playwright has given it the sort of radical facelift Rebecca Gilman attempted with her Dollhouse, which premiered at the Goodman in 2005. Or exploded it to parodic-operatic heights a la Lee Breuer's DollHouse, which also played here in '05, at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

But Ghosts hasn't been ignored entirely. Lanford Wilson's 2002 translation, now getting its first Chicago run with Bohemian Theatre Ensemble, puts some contemporary snap in the dialogue and streamlines the three acts so that director P. Marston Sullivan can bring it all home in just 95 minutes.

And yet there's still a bit of creakiness in the play's bones—which may account for why the tale of long-suffering Helene Alving and her tormented son, Oswald, gets fewer revivals than a feminist evergreen like A Doll's House. Though London critic Clement Scott famously decried Ghosts in 1891 as "an open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly," there's not that much about it that's gasp-worthy anymore. Neither Oswald's congenital syphilis—a grim inheritance from his dead, libertine father, Captain Alving—nor the fact that the family maid, Regina, is his half-sister by way of rape is such a shocker in the age of August: Osage County. At this point the most resonant element in Ibsen's smorgasbord of scandals is Oswald's desire to be euthanized. Given the uproar over Dr. Jack Kevorkian—revived this spring by Barry Levinson's HBO docudrama, You Don't Know Jack—it seems the only thing left with the potential to push our buttons is assisted suicide.

Helene Alving is often held up as the image of what Nora Helmer of A Doll's House might've become if she hadn't walked out on husband Torvald and slammed the door behind her. Helene stayed with the Captain out of fear of flouting convention, and now that he's dead she's built an orphanage, of all things, as a sop to his public image. As psychoanalyst Lou Andreas-Salome expresses it in her 1892 book, Ibsen's Heroines, Helene "knows that she must remain until the last in the depths and under the shadows, never to scale those sunny heights." Her equivocal victory over the harsh constraints of the world, Andreas-Salome writes, is that "she will be granted a flash of clarity—and with it, her release."

The trick of playing Helene is conjuring those flashes of clarity. Saren Nofs-Snyder achieves some remarkable moments of transformation in the role and clearly relishes Helene's increasingly vinegary wit, particularly as she needles Steve O'Connell's stuffed-shirt Reverend Manders. When he expresses revulsion at the notion of Oswald consummating his passion for Regina, Helene twits the man of the cloth, noting, "We're all descended from such a union."

Katy Peterson's lights and Anders Jacobson and Judy Radovsky's claustrophobic set turn the tiny Heartland Studio into a gloomy gray lair, brightened only by the hellish red lights of the fire that destroys the orphanage. The "ghosts" of the past—particularly Captain Alving's violation of Regina's mother—bookend the show, and whispers of them run through Lewis Miller's sound design.

For all its admirable qualities, though, the production lacks vitality and urgency at key points. The cascading series of life-altering decisions unleashed in the wake of the fire come so fast that not all of them register as they should. In a kind of inversion of Nora's exodus from male domination, for instance, Florence Ann Romano's sassy Regina walks out on the Alvings, planning either to trick Reverend Manders into marrying her or turn tricks at the "deluxe hotel for seamen" run by the man who raised her, Jakkob Engstrand. But the enormity of what she's about to do gets short shrift. A scam that Sean Thomas's Engstrand runs on Manders also gets lost as the characters rush to the exits.

So it comes down to Oswald and his mother, facing each other's secrets and lies. Nofs-Snyder and Charles Riffenburg find the notes of sorrow, pity, regret, and resolve they need to lift the production above the not-so-shocking revelations of its earlier scenes. After infidelity, incest, alcoholism, insurance fraud, and hypocrisy have had their moments in the gloom, what's left is Oswald's weak cry for the white, clean, astringent light of "the sun"—which for him, ironically, can only be found in death. The poignant unanswered questions are whether his mother can bring herself to be the source of that light, and whether it will indeed disinfect the past.   v

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