Rebellious souls haunt Ibsen’s Ghosts

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Dan Collins

Danny Gavigan stars as prodigal son Osvald Alving, who is welcomed home by his restless mother Mrs. Helene Alving, played by Deborah Hazlett in Everyman Theatre’s production of Ghosts. The Ibsen play, a kind of 19th century soap opera, continues through May 3.
Photo by Stan Barouh

As any theater student can attest, 19th-century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen was not known for light fare. Ibsen challenged the repression of the Victorian age, the morals of family life, the traditional roles held by men and women in society — the stuff of stuffy university English Lit term papers.

Yet Ibsen has been lauded as second only to Shakespeare as a playwright. His A Doll’s House is said to have been the world’s most performed play by the early 20th century. And Ibsen is still performed before full houses even today, including Baltimore’s Everyman Theater where Ibsen’s Ghosts continues its run now through May 3.

What does Ibsen have to say to modern audiences, raised on reality television, TMZ celebrity scandals and the Kardashians? Actually, quite a lot, if Ghosts is any indication.

A 19th-century soap opera

The plot of Ghosts is elegantly simple: a mother welcomes home her “prodigal son,” as Osvald Alving (played by Danny Gavigan), a not-so-starving artist fresh from a lengthy trip to Paris, describes himself.  But why he has returned home becomes the hidden force that moves the entire play.

Everyman favorite Deborah Hazlett plays Osvald’s mother, Mrs. Helene Alving, who has an affinity for reading “unrighteous” books that the local reverend, Pastor Manders (James Whalen), believes only stir Helene’s “rebellious soul.”

Of course, there’s a lot for Mrs. Alving to be rebelling against — being stuck on a large estate where a gray rain never stops, living in a foreboding Jayne Eyre-type manor where everything appears to be colored dark depression brown.

But wait, it gets worse, though entertainingly so.

Truth be told, Ghosts could be described as a 19th century “Real Housewives” episode (my theater companion called it a cross between The Thorn Birds and “As the World Turns”).

Turns out Mrs. Alving’s Mr. Alving was not exactly an adherent to Puritanical Christian values, either. The stereotypical “pillar of the community,” the late Mr. Alving had more in common with Hugh Hefner and Arnold Schwarzenegger — who fathered a child with the family maid — than Cotton Mather.

Speaking of maids, Sophie Hinderberger plays Regina Engstrand, the Alving family servant and ward of Mrs. Alving since childhood. Regina is another facet of modern womanhood: While she doesn’t read scandalous books like her employer, neither is she filled with a sense of duty to family, home and hearth, one of Pastor Manders’ favorite topics. She’s an independent and pragmatic woman who is driven to excel and raise her social station.

Tossed about like a cork in these unsettling waters is Whalens’ Manders. Walking ever ram-rod straight, head held high, he is like a fixed moment in time, dwelling in a world of eternal familial and societal values that cannot change, nor should, at least in his opinion.

Naïve, he is a “bleeding heart” as Mrs. Alving calls him, a term she uses not to berate, but out of affection — an affection Ibsen indicates might have at one time been something more than platonic.

And what’s an Everyman production without a scene-stealing performance by resident company member Bruce Randolph Nelson? Nelson plays Jakob Engstrand, a bearded brigand with a bum leg, a Machiavellian mind and a sly tongue to match. A con man/carpenter/arsonist, Jakob knows just what to say to bend his mark, Pastor Manders, to his will.

Like father, like son?

Which brings us back to Osvald Alving, the prodigal son. Osvald, who appears to share Oscar Wilde’s tailor, is pallid, perturbed, and generally preoccupied as he paces the stage, his demeanor as dreary as the rainy weather. Something ails Osvald’s body and spirit, and what that malady is finds its roots in the failings of his father.

There is a moment when Osvald makes an off-stage advance toward Regina, and in that moment, Hazlett’s Mrs. Alving reacts as though she has seen a ghost, which, as we learn more details about her late husband’s “degeneracy,” she has.

This play was said to be shocking and scandalous to the audiences who first experienced it, and it’s easy to see why. Issues ranging from incest to adultery, children born out of wedlock, alcoholism, “free love,” suicide, temptation of a man of the cloth, even STDs, are all food for thought in Ibsen’s Ghosts, though Ibsen is far more discreet and infinitely more poetic than your typical 21st century reality TV show would be.

Kudos to director Donald Hicken, who keeps the pace quick despite an exposition-heavy exchange or two between Mrs. Alving and Manders.

Ghosts continues at the Everyman Theater through May 3, with performances Wednesday through Sunday, with selected Tuesday evening and Wednesday matinee performances. Tickets range from $40 to $60. Patrons 62 and older can receive a discount of $6 off tickets for Saturday matinees and Sunday evening performances.

Everyman is located at 315 W Fayette St. To purchase tickets, call (410) 752-2208 or visit www.everymantheatre.org.