DRAWING ROOM drama is a sly beast. With conversation at a maximum and action at a minimum, this domestic animal tends to lie down and play dead just when the playwright is striving for most tension. Actors strain for excitement while the play is sound asleep, hiding under polished walnut divans and Aubusson carpets.
Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen turned the medium in on itself; the confines of the parlor were a perfect metaphor for the confinements of nineteenth century society. An adaptation of Ghosts at the Loeb transforms Ibsen's sitting room into a chic contemporary country home; the end result is a fine production which resembles Ibsen in form but not in sense.
TRAPPED IN A hellish marriage with a philandering Captain, Helene Alving abandons marital duty and seeks love and refuge in the arms of old family friend Pastor Manders. But those arms are too busy embracing the constraints of nineteenth century society to make room for a tearful would-be adultress, so Manders sends Helene right back to the Captain with a firm reproach and charter membership in the Cult of True Womanhood.
Helene then moves home and husband to a life of rural seclusion. She protects her infant son Oswald from his brutish father by packing him off to boarding school at an early age. When the Captain impregnates the maid, Helene quickly marries her off to a carpenter named Engstrand and raises the child Regina in her own home. If she can't save the man's conscience, she can at least salvage his reputation; Helene busies herself with philanthropy while her husband garners the glory.
Ghosts opens several years later. Regina and Oswald are full grown, the Captain is ten years dead. Mrs. Alving has cemented her late husband's outstanding reputation by financing an orphanage with his estate. On the eve of the dedication ceremonies, Pastor Manders has come to preside at the affair, and Oswald has come home after several years absence.
Mrs. Alving is now the picture of conspicuously dignified widowhood: she bursts with maternal concern, bustles with philanthropic enterprise, buries herself in tastefully tweedy clothing. She also wages war in her living room. Her enemies are "ghosts": moral and cultural traditions that obstruct a free and happy life. As she explains to the straight-laced Manders:
I almost believe we are ghosts...It's not only what we inherit from our parents that keeps on returning in us. It's all the old self-doubts, fears, hurts, prejudices. They aren't alive in us; but they hang on just the same...Ghosts everywhere--so many and thick, they're like grains of sand.
To the newly aware widow, Manders' narrow moralism now provides not solace but suffocating oppression. The Pastor becomes the symbol of nineteenth century conventions.
The play continues in a series of shattering revelations. The Pastor is crushed by the lifelong depravity of the Captain. Oswald and Regina discover that their incipient affair borders on incest. Mrs. Alving realizes that despite her effort, her son has been maimed by the evil deeds of his father.
For in Ibsen's world, the legacy of past generations is not knowledge but blameless suffering. This series of revelations leads not to a liberated consciousness but to a tortured tangle of frustrated desire, mental illness, incest and guilt. Self-awareness frees characters from societal ghosts but plunges them deeper into their own personal nightmares.
SUCH SLAVE souls as ours!" wrote Ibsen in 1882. "Norway is a free country peopled by unfree men and women." When Ghosts was first produced, critics condemned the "morbid, unhealthy, unwholesome and disgusting story."
Mainstage director Stephen Kolzak has adapted the play to contemporary Europe, drastically altering the context of Ibsen's plot. Much of the play is a dialectic between Alving's vision and Manders's morality; modernization of script and set has reversed their roles. What was once Alving's radical individualism becomes the commonplace assertion of a "liberated woman." Manders, formerly the embodiment of societal mores, is now the anachronism: his fervent preaching seems too silly to be evil. In the 1970's, fighting convention is convention and criticizing the establishment is the main chore of that establishment.
Actor Jonathan Epstein as the Pastor takes full advantage of his newly-created role of pariah with brilliant results. Kolzak's adaptation enables Epstein to seize a once shallow caricature of a clergyman and transform it into a complex, brooding performance. Karen Ross is a good Mrs. Alving, adding a layer of sophisticated and casual confidence to Ibsen's troubled widow. Stephen Kolzak as the tortured painter Oswald gives an excellent performance; his harrowing breakdown is the one scene where emotion transcends Ibsen's carefully orchestrated social commentaries. Sidney Atwood as Engstrand and Helena Snow as the ambitious Regina handle modernization less effectively by dipping into stereotype. Atwood's carpenter is too much the fast-talking hustler and Snow's best lines are weakened by smirking golddigger mannerisms.
Kolzak's powerful stage direction compensates for the flaws of his overambitious update. Naturalistic acting undercuts the philosophical pronouncements of each character, rescuing the production from pomposity or soap-opera sentimentality. David Moore's ultra-modern set is a nice consequence of this update; the usual drawback of a one-room set--visual boredom--is offset by diverse and dramatic lighting by Chris Stone and Ginger Thomson.
The entire basis of dramatic update is problematic. Modernization presupposes limitations of audience imagination, and that undermines the very concept of drama. Drama entails entering a world not our own, and that involvement is not necessarily made smoother when the characters wear Bloomingdales' outfits and mutter in student slang. "Relevance" has little to do with decade or decor. Adaptation often weakens the playwright's intentions; Kolzak's Ghosts in surface mirrors Ibsen but in substance is worlds apart.
But while Ghosts isn't valid literature it's damn good theater. Outstanding performance and direction welded to a fine technical production make this a rare Loeb animal, a natural and naturalistic winner.