The world hasn’t changed all that much in the 127 years since Henrik Ibsen’s play Ghosts was first performed. As the recent election proved, there are still people who point the finger of condemnation at those who break what they call God’s rules and those with a more humanistic point of view.

Take for example Ghosts’ Pastor Manders and “prodigal son” Oswald Alving.

An orphanage is being dedicated to Oswald’s late father, an event which has brought the young man back to his mother’s home, a home where he has lived very few of his 27 years.  Having been sent away to school at a very young age and having spent most of his recent years amidst artists in Paris, Oswald has returned home from a world where young couples without the financial means to marry choose to live together.  After all, Oswald asks Pastor Manders, “What else are they to do?”, to which the so-called man of God replies, “What are they to do? Well, Mr. Alving, I will tell you what they ought to do. They ought to keep away from each other from the very beginning—that is what they ought to do!”

As I watched A Noise Within’s superb production of the once scandalous Ibsen classic, I couldn’t help thinking that this is precisely the same answer that would be given in today’s world by those who sit in judgment on anyone different from themselves.  It’s the very contemporary quality of Ibsen’s tale, combined with more than a bit of the kinds of secrets and lies that keep people tuning in to daytime and nighttime soaps, and some sensational acting thrown in to boot that kept me on the edge of my seat in what I’d somehow imagined would be a dull, talky, even creaky bit of “classic theater.” Dull?  Hardly. Talky? Well, yes, but well-written, often funny talk.  Creaky? Not one single bit.

Married men living double lives, women who stay in abusive marriages because it is their “duty,” children lied to about who their real parents are for the sake of “morality”…  It’s all there in Ghosts, with a dash of incest and a dose of terminal STDs thrown in for good measure. No wonder late 19th Century Scandinavian society found it shocking and indecent.  There are still communities who’d happily see this play burned even today.

What else to do with a play which features a woman like Mrs. Alving, a woman who proclaims that “law and order are responsible for most of the misery in this world”?  What else to do with a play which declares truth more important than obligation?  

What else to do? Well, how about seeing it?

Like a Greek tragedy in which the sins of the father are visited on the son, Ghosts, under the passionate direction of Michael Murray, moves inexorably towards its shattering final scene, featuring the bravura performances of Deborah Strang as Mrs. Alving and J. Todd Adams as Oswald.

There isn’t a weak link in Murray’s cast.  Besides the divine Strang, A Noise Within’s resident Meryl Streep, and Adams, the perfect dissolute leading man, Ghosts features Jaimi Paige as Mrs. Alving’s maid Regina, Mark Bramhall as Regina’s father (or so she thinks), and Joel Swetow as Pastor Manders. Paige manages to be both prim and proper—and saucy—as the young beauty who turns out to have a closer connection to her employer than merely servant. Bramhall’s gruff and conniving Engstrand steals every scene he’s in. Finally, Swetow is never anything less than compelling as Manders, a 19th Century cousin of televangelists Ted Haggard and Jim Bakker. His scenes opposite Strang positively crackle with conservative vs. liberal  static.

Ghosts is a gorgeous production to look at, with Angela Balogh Calin’s set an elegant reproduction of a 19th Century Norwegian living room, exquisitely lit by Susan Gratch, whose lighting design evokes the titular Ghosts more than once.  Nikki Delhomme’s costumes recreate the era to perfection, with a special nod to Mrs. Alving’s mutton-sleeved gowns. Benjamin Haber Kamine’s sound design enhances the ghostlike mood as well. Patrick Killian’s wigs, hair, and makeup design couldn’t be better.

A Noise Within’s production of Ghosts is so compelling and current that one can’t help wondering why it isn’t revived more often.  As long as conservatives tangle with progressives about morality, a battle not likely to end in the foreseeable future, Ghosts will retain its cutting edge relevance. A production as fine as this one is yet another example of why A Noise Within can proudly refer to itself as “California’s Home For The Classics.”

A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale.

–Steven Stanley
April 2, 2009
                                                         Photos: Craig Schwartz

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