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The Ghost Sonata

At the Loeb

By Robert W. Gordon

Trying to imagine the Strindberg who wrote The Ghost Sonata, I think of a devoted Nietzschean suddenly confronted by a sweet little girl holding a lollipop and an affectionate puppydog. For an unguarded moment he is charmed; but the girl goes her way, and the play-wright reflects that perhaps the candy only reveals her materialism, and the dog her slavish dependence on pets. He becomes hopelessly despairing, then immeasurably compassionate. He writes a poem:

There must be kindness; which will best avail

When tendered by the one whose former deed brought pain.

The only blest and happy state for man

Is childhood innocence--which never lasts.

That is the emotional cycle of The Ghost Sonata, whose second and third acts end with the quoted lines. I mean no irreverence by the analogy: if one does not see the play as a record of the author's shifting state of mind one must suppose it simply lopsided, shambling and confused. The playwright excites our sympathies as none of the actual characters can. For this is a "dream play"; the characters are at best ghosts; and the central thing is the controlling mind of the dreamer.

Not that these are in any way pale ghosts; the H.D.C. production well brings out how fine, tense, and enormously vital they are. The old Jacob Hummel, who must comprehend and dominate an ornate, almost Florentine, tangle of intrigue in the first and second acts, cows everyone in the Loeb with his knowledge of sin. "I've caused misery and been miserable myself," he says, "They must cancel each other out."

Bribing, threatening, tremendously assured, he stands as a universal bloodsucker; there is no forgiveness in him. Richard Simons, (who is a psychiatrist and I'm told something of a professional actor) plays Hummel superbly; a folksy gaffer at the start, his rises from his wheelchair to become an avenging angel who punishes men mercilessly for being human.

But eventually he must be defeated, and fortunately Adrienne Harris as the Mummy who finally exposes him has the power to do it. She very smoothly overcomes the difficulties of playing a parrot-like creature who has lived in a closet for decades. She emerges to plead for another way of dealing with sin: repent and suffer for one's own rather than punishing it in others.

Beside these two first-rate actors, the rest of Director Thom Babe's cast looks ineffectual. This is not true of the servants, Jere Whiting and Stanford Janger: Whiting is if anything too overwhelmingly ghoulish and Janger too cheerfully unaffected by his own enslavement to Hummel. But they are more than competent. The dreadful ineffectuality of this production comes in the third act, after the clashes and climaxes of the play.

This almost impossibly difficult act ostensibly shows how bloodsucking forces work; a young student who has witnessed Hummel's stripping of people's illusory virtues watches the innocence of the girl he loves drained. The symbolic drainer is a frightening cook (Karolina Nystrom) who turns gravy into colored water and poisons the love-hyacinths of the young couple. But the couple is pretty anemic anyway; Maria Livanos turns delighted innocence into unappealing skittishness, and Frederick Kirchhoff pouts and jumps unreasonably about the stage, making an intelligent idealist learning the fundamentals of Strindbergism seem a mawkish yalie.

But it is easy to discount these weaknesses. Chris and Bitte Rawson's new translation gives a solid idiomatic script that never sounds awkward. Stephen Tucker has designed a brilliant, extremely compact set: the costumes and music are admirable. Babe has directed a Ghost Sonata that is a capable and striking rendition of Strindberg's fantasies and obsessions.

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