It’s not at all surprising that Ghosts is so seldom performed. This 1881 play by Henrik Ibsen broke ground for realism in many ways—and it is also one of the most monumentally depressing dramas ever written. Smothering under both rigid social norms and the dismal Norwegian climate, its characters conceal desperate secrets. Yet miraculously, Windfall Theatre’s crystal-clear production offers an evening of gripping, stimulating theater.
Ibsen was the Lars Van Trier of his day: innovative and contrarian, his settings are as tightly focused as any Dogme film, eschewing lyricism in favor of clear-sighted verity; he challenged conventions while scandalizing both the public and the critics (one of Ibsen’s critics called the play “a festering wound”). The first copies of Ghosts were returned to the printer: the booksellers were too ashamed to carry them; and the play’s first actual production was, improbably, in Chicago—performed in Norwegian by a company of forward-thinking émigrés. For all that, Ghosts is very much a product of its time: though it dared to bring up the forbidden topic of venereal disease, its tragic outcome could only have occurred in a world before the discovery of antibiotics. By depicting forbidden subjects in such a vivid, unblinking way, detailing the emotional and spiritual toll they take, Ibsen blazed the trail for countless issue dramas, determined to shine light into the secret corners of society.
It’s remarkable how little scandalous material there actually is in the dialog: these characters wouldn’t be caught dead saying out loud things like “The captain got the serving girl pregnant,” much less whisper the dreaded word “syphilis” (which is the vehicle for the doom that arrives like a Greek tragedy in the final act). Everything is conveyed by innuendo—which actually makes the script much more powerful: we have to piece the truth together just as the characters do. “There, I’ve told you everything” says Mrs. Alving—but she’s actually said almost nothing; everything is implicit.
You can count the number of woman protagonists in classic drama on your fingers; Ibsen was responsible for a handful of them, contributing Hedda Gabler, Nora from A Doll’s House, and, in this play, Helene Alving. Expertly rendered by Carol Zippel, Alving is a cultured, intelligent, and capable woman who has taken over management of a large estate after the death of her dissolute but well-respected husband (nobody ever says how he died, but the implication is clear). Complex, articulate, and making the most of the mixed hand life has dealt her, she is rebuked by the village priest for reading “suspect books” and espousing liberal ideals. Zippel lets us see into this sympathetic character without a single false note. She has a worthy partner in Joe Picchetti as her son Oswald, a successful painter who has spent most of his life abroad— barely knowing his father— but who has recently returned home for an extended stay. (Picchetti has been seen much around town of late, but, one suspects, it won’t be long before Hollywood or Broadway snaps him up.) Together, these accomplished actors maneuver their most harrowing scenes without a trace of the bathos into which they could very easily descend.
As a serving girl with ambitions, Samantha Martinson brilliantly presents a woman who plays the game of submission while you can almost hear the wheels turning in her head; when she learns the truth and shows her colors, it’s a breathtaking moment. Rounding out the cast are Charles Hanel as a townsman scheming behind a mask of deference, and Ben George as the Pastor. A striking figure in severe black, he seems genuinely benevolent, but (as is the hazard of his profession), he is quick to pass judgment, and, as played by George, a bit hapless. His advice, ever hewing to the letter of scripture, has spectacularly terrible consequences for everyone. The problem with religious authority, Ibsen suggests, is that its strictures lead to a kind of righteous blindness—no wonder Ibsen was condemned, a mere century after the French Enlightenment raised the ideals of liberty and reason over those of conformity and obedience. Under Maureen Kilmurry’s finely-tuned direction, every moment of the script works toward the whole; the characters’ relationships and intentions are clearly displayed: there’s not a dead moment. Carl Eiche has designed a simple yet elegant set evoking spiritual agoraphobia: a beautiful monochromatic backdrop of forest and sea gracefully conveys the setting, while an ingenious lighting concept by Dylan Elhai brings it to life in a heartbreaking visual coup; to say anything more would be a spoiler.
Some productions try to dazzle us with exotic theatrical banquets: elaborate confections, sparkling wordplay, or high-concept conceits. Windfall’s production of this modernist classic shows that sometimes plain bread and wine can make for a very satisfying feast.
Windfall Theatre presents
by Henrik Ibsen
Adapted from the 1891 William Archer translation by Maureen Kilmurry and the cast
playing through October 10
at Village Church Arts
130 E Juneau Avenue