Center Stage proves Ibsen's 'Ghosts' is still haunted with power @

May 13, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

"Oh, social convention! I often think that is what's behind all the mischief in this world." This statement -- made by Mrs. Alving, the lead character in "Ghosts" -- is at the core of Henrik Ibsen's 1881 play, which is receiving a lean, incisive and at times riveting production at Center Stage.

Mrs. Alving makes this declaration against social convention after telling her pastor the truth about her sham of a marriage, in which she covered up her late husband's dissolute life.

The title, "Ghosts," is often narrowly interpreted to refer solely to the venereal disease Mrs. Alving's son, Oswald, inherited from her husband. But this production, which uses Arthur Kopit's taut translation, leaves no doubt about the title's broader meaning: that the most frightening ghosts are hidebound notions of duty lTC and ideals, notions that can sabotage truth and freedom.

Director Irene Lewis' interpretation reinforces this theme not only in the performances, but also in the physical production, designed by John Conklin and lighted by James F. Ingalls. The play begins on a rainy day, with water pouring against the set's windows. The Alving home, however, glows with light, just as Mrs. Alving has devoted her life to creating a glowing image of her marriage. But in the end, when the ghosts have claimed their victim, the room is dark, even though the sun -- like the truth -- is finally shining.

These technical effects mirror the changes Pamela Payton-Wright undergoes in her deeply felt portrayal of Mrs. Alving. Initially cheerful and gracious, she shows us the public face she has adopted. But when the truth frees her -- after her adherence to duty has extracted a terrible price -- she is left literally howling by Oswald's side.

Though Payton-Wright's intensity verges on melodrama when she mistakenly fears Oswald may be following in his father's debauched footsteps, her devotion to her son is so strong and unwavering, it's almost palpable. And her pain in the final scene is largely responsible for the production's riveting moments.

As Oswald, Greg Naughton delivers a flawless portrayal of an artist whose loss of creativity and misunderstanding of his parents' true natures are tragedies that outweigh illness, and even death.

In the role of Pastor Manders, the embodiment of social and religious hypocrisy, James J. Lawless is saddled with so much speechifying, his character could easily become a joke. But Lawless' gentle looks and manner earn a measure of sympathy for this misguidedly self-righteous man.

Not that there aren't moments of levity in this production. Over the years, Center Stage has brought fresh, highly accessible insights to Ibsen, and this production is no exception. Lewis clearly recognizes that just as darkness is best understood when contrasted with light, so is disaster heightened when contrasted with humor.

Much of that humor derives from Charles Dean's depiction of laborer Jacob Engstrand as an Ibsen-esque version of Shakespeare's truth-telling fools. His characterization prompts a similar -- if occasionally off-putting -- reaction as we laugh both with and at this honest, resourceful and admittedly flawed human being.

Finally, without laboring the point, it should be said that although syphilis, the unnamed disease in the play, is now curable, this production makes the resonance with AIDS unmistakable. This is accomplished not by updating -- which would be an impropriety in this period production -- but by trusting Ibsen's text, which remains as disturbingly relevant a century later as it was the day it was written.

"Ghosts"

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays, with matinees at 2 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays and 1 p.m. May 25 (sign-interpreted performance 2 p.m. June 4; audio-described performance 2 p.m. June 5); through June 5

Tickets: $10-$35

Call: (410) 332-0033; TDD: (410) 332-4240

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