'Ghosts': Theater Review

Ghosts Production Still - H 2015
Stephanie Berger

Ghosts Production Still - H 2015

An impeccably staged, deeply moving production of one of Henrik Ibsen's masterworks

Lesley Manville heads the cast of Richard Eyre's Olivier Award-winning Almeida Theatre revival of the Ibsen classic, imported to New York for a monthlong run.

Considering it was written in 1881, it's amazing how Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts can still shock. Dealing with such issues as free love, euthanasia, sibling incest, religious hypocrisy and venereal disease, it's no wonder that the drama was greeted in its early years of production with such damning descriptions as "a dirty deed done in public." Director Richard Eyre's new adaptation and staging, imported to the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater after acclaimed runs at London's Almeida Theatre and in the West End, thrillingly conveys the play's devastating power.

Rarely seen on our shores — its last Broadway production was in 1982, starring Liv Ullmann and a young Kevin Spacey in his New York stage debut — the play was Ibsen's follow-up to A Doll's House, continuing his scathing commentary on the social mores of his time. Its central character, Helene Alving, a widow still coping with the painful after-effects of her marriage to a philandering husband, is a tragic figure depicted in the most sympathetic of terms.

Lesley Manville, a veteran of many Mike Leigh films, delivers a towering performance as Helene, tormented by the ghosts of her past. She's not the only victim, as it's soon revealed that her son Oswald (Billy Howle), newly returned home after years pursuing a career as an artist in Paris, is suffering from syphilis, presumably passed on to him by his sexually promiscuous father. We also learn that Helene's maid Regina (Charlene McKenna), to whom Oswald is romantically attracted, is actually his half-sister.

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As the play begins, Helene is preparing to dedicate a new orphanage to the memory of her late husband. But the arrival of a former paramour, Pastor Manders (Will Keen), prompts her to reveal the sordid details of her marriage.

"My whole married life was a vile sham," she proclaims to the shocked Manders, later adding, "This house was a university of suffering for me."

Her one desperate attempt at regaining happiness, when she tries to rekindle a romantic spark with the pastor, is rudely rebuffed in a moment as heartbreaking as it is pathetic.

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Clearly influenced by Greek tragedies, the play is here given a breathlessly streamlined treatment, clocking in at a fast-paced, intermission-less 90 minutes. The compression only serves to accentuate the inexorable journey toward its tragic conclusion, when Oswald, suffering a debilitating attack of the disease that he ironically refers to as "father's legacy," asks his horrified mother to end his life with a fatal dose of morphine. As he pleads with her to "give me the sun," Peter Mumford's dramatic lighting design bathes the stage in a blood-red glow of dawn.

Although Manville dominates the proceedings with her mesmerizing turn, which effortlessly conveys deep mournfulness tinged with doses of mordant humor, the entire ensemble delivers faultless performances. As the pastor, the bald, stiff-limbed Keen perfectly embodies one of the "moralizing cretins" about whom Oswald rails. Howle movingly depicts the dissipation of the physically ravaged son; McKenna is heartbreakingly vibrant as the maid who finds her illusions shattered; and Brian McCardie makes a vivid impression as her carpenter father, forced to face his cuckolded past.

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Eyre's adaptation is fluid and modern-sounding without feeling anachronistic, and Tim Hatley's arresting set design, featuring transparent walls that enable us to spy on the interactions of the characters in the background, emphasizes the theme of dark secrets being revealed. It all combines to bring this vintage play to moving, harrowing life.

Cast: Lesley Manville, Billy Howle, Will Keen, Brian McCardie, Charlene McKenna
Playwright: Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Richard Eyre
Director: Richard Eyre
Set & costume designer: Tim Hatley
Lighting designer: Peter Mumford
Sound designer: John Leonard
Production: Almeida Theatre, Sonia Friedman Productions
Presented by Brooklyn Academy of Music