Fear the Light

The “ghosts” in Henrik Ibsen’s drama don’t go bump in the night. But they’re just as haunting. Only Mrs. Alving sees them. For 19 years she fought to keep her public image from collapsing. Pressures have intensified at her country estate, in 1881, because her public relations were such a success.

Her parents arranged her marriage. Contrary to his pristine reputation, Captain Alving was a rake. When she learned her husband’s philandering included a social disease, Mrs. Alving ran to Pastor Manders with open arms. But the moral clergyman rejected her advances. Trapped between ideals and tawdry facts, Mrs. Alving didn’t demand a divorce. She fell in love with duty and maintaining appearances. She worshipped both with such ferocity that, ten years after his death, she’s building an orphanage in her husband’s honor. The Norwegian townspeople consider the structure a shrine.

When we first see her, she’s split between Helene, her true self, and Mrs. Alving, her social façade. She’s been reading the freethinkers (most likely John Stuart Mill’s essay, “The Subjection of Women,” which advocated voting rights for women in 1869) and wants to break away from Manders’s lockstep morality. Helene’s a recent convert to the new ideas; however, she could still retreat to the safer, more predictable Mrs. Alving. But the arrival of her beloved son Osvald, from Paris, promises to enhance her liberation.

In Greek tragedy, the gods abet the “sins of the father.” Curses take on literal life, as in Aeschylus when the Furies hound the House of Atreus. In Ibsen, disease replaces myth. But the disease comes in two forms: microbiological (Captain Alving’s syphilis) and mental. The latter ghosts, Mrs. Alving says, are dead ideas, dead beliefs that not only block the “light,” they force people to fear it.

When Ghosts opened, most reviewers took no prisoners. One critic called it “an open drain, a loathsome sore unbandaged”; another, “lugubrious diagnosis of sordid impropriety.” Most reacted to Ibsen’s use of venereal disease, but the extreme reactions suggest that, underneath, the pundits objected to hearing cherished beliefs labeled as “dead.”

For the North Coast Rep’s uneven but ultimately moving production, Rosina Reynolds pits Mrs. Alving in a tug-of-war between two worlds. Her splendid performance recalls the “bond slave” statues of Michelangelo: human figures trying to wrench themselves from blocks of marble. Reynolds flits back and forth between rectitude and freedom, gaining, falling away. She’s cold, she’s proper, and, when Osvald comes home, she’s a sunbeam. Her repression vanishes, and she becomes decades younger.

Costume designer Jennifer Brawn Gittings gives Reynolds an elegant, floor-length patterned dress that’s as dark as a Norwegian winter and tight as a straightjacket. In Gittings’s always-apt designs, even the necklines reveal character. Mrs. Alving’s is a noose; Jonathan McMurtry (who makes carpenter Engstrand much slier than most “bumpkin” readings of the role) has an open collar, suggesting moral laxity.

Richard Baird’s excellent Osvald also recalls the “bond slave” statues, but in reverse: his “worm-eaten” condition (he inherited his father’s disease) tugs him back into the marble. When he sees young Regina, the housekeeper, Osvald adopts his mother’s old tactic: maintain a bright façade — young, healthy, eager to impress, much like his father’s “ghost.” The effort hastens Osvald’s downfall.

Baird, who must have shed 20 pounds for the role, inscribes “cursed” across Osvald’s pallid brow and moves in an inexorable line from flames to embers. Recently Baird played Caliban as a scene-chewing monster in dreadlocks. His Osvald, by contrast, is so fragile, the scenery could swallow him. It’s hard to believe the same actor played both.

Under David Ellenstein’s direction, Baird’s and Reynolds’s scenes together are terrific. They’re so spontaneous, it’s as if Osvald and Helene are simply riffing: no script, no rehearsals or direction, just raw, fully present feelings.

Their tandem work is of such high quality that inferior efforts stand out. Granted, Pastor Manders is a prig. But John Herzog’s flat, amateurish performance makes him barely that. He trips over cues and lines (and trips up other actors) and never conveys the sense that he believes a word he says. Aimee Burdette’s pert Regina brightens the stage, though her recognition scene lacks specificity.

Marty Burnett’s set, Mrs. Alving’s spotless living room, defines her before she arrives. This is the abode of a controller. Every object is in place; move one in this centerfold of dutiful housekeeping, and there’ll be hell to pay. Matt Novotny’s lighting handles sunrises and sunsets quite well but breaks its own aesthetic during the fire scene. Instead of naturalistic hues, Novotny paints the doorway with a neon red more appropriate for Vegas than the Alvings’ Rosenvold estate.

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen
North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach
Directed by David Ellenstein; cast: Rosina Reynolds, Richard Baird, John Herzog, Jonathan McMurtry, Aimee Burdette; scenic design, Marty Burnett; costumes, Jennifer Brawn Gittings; lighting, Matt Novotny; sound, Chris Luessmann
Playing through May 2; Sunday and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 2:00 p.m. 858-481-1055.

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