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Ibsen's Ghosts still haunts us today

click to enlarge So, what to do with all that morphine? - COURTESY THEATREWORKS
  • Courtesy TheatreWorks
  • So, what to do with all that morphine?

Henrik Ibsen is arguably the most important playwright since Shakespeare; his controversial work often defied 19th-century conventions. His 1881 play, Ghosts, is a blistering attack on the "respectable" families of the day, living dual lives to conceal their moral failings.

TheatreWorks' Ghosts is an ambitious production on an exquisite set, bringing Ibsen's social commentary to a contemporary audience. Ghosts is a somewhat risky choice for TheatreWorks, considering how much social norms have evolved since Ibsen first introduced the play.

Director Murray Ross has adapted Ibsen's script, compressing it into a one-act, 100-minute performance. The adaptation works, with no breaks in the storytelling. Ross' flair for the dramatic is on full display here: The sound, the lighting and the staging of the final scene are spectacular. When Ibsen says "the wages of sin are visited on the children," Ross pulls out all the stops to show the full cost of those wages. It's disturbing, and Ross plays it out in excruciating detail.

Christian O'Shaughnessy is Oswald, the grown child upon whom those wages are visited. O'Shaughnessy is convincing as the young artist whose early death sentence was imposed at birth. O'Shaughnessy is stunning in his final scene, squeezing every ounce of emotion and empathy from the audience. Ghosts may be his best work yet.

Oswald's mother, Helen (Sharon Andrews), is a modern character, a strong woman who reads, thinks and cares less for her "duty" than for her happiness. Andrews is strong as Helen, pushing back hard on Pastor Manders, defending her son and her own suffering. Andrews plays Helen as confident, not conflicted, finally standing up for what she believes.

Pastor Manders (Dan Mason) is the hapless character who has to defend the status quo. Mason does his best, expressing disgust and moral outrage at the Alving family's failings. Regina (Carmen Vreeman Shedd) is a tragic character whose world is rocked by the "ghosts" in her family. Shedd's chemistry with O'Shaughnessy is obvious, and her anger at learning the truth is genuinely heartbreaking. Tom Paradise (Jacob) is vexing as Regina's limping father, seemingly evil at times and redeemed at others. Paradise wears both hats equally well.

For Ibsen, marriage is a social illusion that masks serial philandering, STDs, illegitimate children, and wholesale hypocrisy. Judging by high profile scandals from Princess Diana to Bill Clinton to General David Petraeus, bad marital behavior has not changed very much for "respectable" marriages since Ibsen's day.

While that bad behavior hasn't changed, its stigma certainly has. We now collectively shrug our shoulders at what was morally repugnant in Ibsen's society. Our indifference to that behavior creates a disconnect for today's audiences. Ghosts is not a comedy, but parts of the script evoke unintentional laughter.

This laughter is a result of the time that has passed since Ibsen unleashed Ghosts on his contemporaries. In the 19th century, it was new, modern, controversial and risky. In the 21st century, the shock and awe are gone, and the controversy seems quaint. TheatreWorks gives Ibsen full credit for his achievement with an outstanding production of Ghosts, but Ibsen's lessons have largely been learned.

  • Ibsen's Ghosts still haunts us today

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