- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2003

The good news is that the classics can be modernized. The bad news is that the classics can be modernized.

Director Edwin Sherin has slapped Henrik Ibsen’s 1881 masterpiece about lies and retribution, “Ghosts,” clear into 1981 in an attempt to make the play as vigorous and shocking to audiences as it was more than 100 years ago.

The updating is not the cold-water jolt to the senses Mr. Sherin anticipated. Instead, the modifications and add-ons have pushed “Ghosts” into the unfortunate realm of melodrama.

Even the august Jane Alexander, making her Shakespeare Theatre debut, cannot save this production from seeming like something you’d see on the Lifetime cable network. It plucks at your heartstrings with gummy fingers, and the play’s ageless message about the sins of the fathers visited on the sons has been diluted by a forced topicality.

Not all of the changes are hard to digest. The play has moved from the frozen expanses of Norway to a storm-tossed island off the coast of Maine, where the wealthy widow Helen Alving (Jane Alexander) resides in minimalist splendor in a sweeping, modern glass house that looks like something designed by a Scandinavian architect (Walt Spangler’s set, with its pyramid-shaped greenhouse, elicited delighted gasps from the opening-night audience).

Two events she has lived for are coming to pass. Her monument to her dead husband, Arthur (a pillar of the community who was in real life a dissipated creep), a sanctuary for at-risk children (in the original, it was an orphanage), is to be dedicated in the morning. The sanctuary was built on lies and sin, but it is a glistening memorial, anyway.

And the son she has sacrificed everything for, Oswald (Alexander Pascal), has returned from New York for an indefinite stay. In this new translation, Oswald is a painter of frank, graphic nudes in the Lucian Freud-Francis Bacon school (here, painted by Mark Messersmith).

The paintings spark a charged argument between Helen and her longtime adviser, the rigid and judgmental clergyman Franklin Manders (Ted Van Griethuysen).

Franklin thinks they are pornography; Helen finds them humming with edgy life.

Their disagreement escalates into an examination of Helen’s transgressions and mistakes, which in turn leads Helen to look upon this important day as a way of clearing the slate. For nearly 30 years she has lived with “ghosts,” the lies and deceptions she has maintained in order to live according to outmoded conventions.

This day in her living room is Liberation Day. Helen wishes to reveal her secrets and live life cleanly — without her husband’s money (that went to building the sanctuary) and with Oswald, whom she thought she had shielded from so much woe.

But, as we all know, fate can fling mud on your nice white carpet. Oswald is his father’s son, and in this way “Ghosts” resembles a Greek tragedy. For no matter how much Helen tries to control circumstances, she cannot change fate.

You wish this production of “Ghosts” scaled the lofty, timeless aerie of Greek tragedy. Instead, it keeps getting mired in the mundane in an effort to neatly explain everything. Franklin Manders is made a tippler, which provides an excuse for his actions, but at risk to this great character, played with mannered fervor by Mr. Van Griethuysen. Couldn’t Franklin just be a man blinded by his sanctimoniousness, his need to save face and his narrow view of Christianity? Does he have to be a drunk, too? And one of the secrets in the Alving household takes on an extraneous racial slant. Arthur Alving raped a servant, and the result of this union, Gina Strand (Noel True), was taken in by Helen and raised as a housekeeper/assistant. So now, not only is Gina the outcome of a rape and in love with Oswald (and vice versa), but she’s of mixed blood, as well.

The equation becomes dangerously loaded with the character of her adoptive father, Jacob Strand (Andre De Shields), who seems like an acquiescent worker but is actually an opportunist who twists situations to his advantage. Even the seasoned Mr. De Shields cannot pull this plot point off of Tobacco Road.

Yet the most egregious modernization is giving Oswald AIDS instead having of him inherit syphilis from his father. Erasing the theme of the father’s grievous errors being passed onto the son is but one issue.

Having Oswald suffer from AIDS is almost too much to bear in a play already thick with agony. It is like “Titus Andronicus” — so over the top you have to look away.

True, syphilis and other diseases of its ilk can now be controlled by antibiotics. To modern audiences, therefore, Oswald’s plight might not be such a big deal. However, AIDS carries such a history of its own, a psychic and societal weight, that it gives the play a dimension it cannot support.

While Miss Alexander is commanding onstage, she and the other actors seem caught furthering a concept rather than performing their roles. Miss Alexander is believable as the coldly stoic New England matron — too believable at times — and her brittle, world-weary delivery evokes much-needed laughter. But her coolness, her clipped sentences do her in when she is called upon to express her feelings for Oswald. It’s as if she is professing love for an ideal rather than a person.

Oswald may have a point when he wails to his mother that she cannot save him. Neither can Miss Alexander, nor the rest of the excellent cast, save this version of “Ghosts” from being anything but a stifling modern museum piece.


WHAT: “Ghosts” by Henrik Ibsen

WHERE: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW, Washington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through July 27.

TICKETS: $15 to $65

PHONE: 202/547-1122


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