The consequences of living with lies haunt Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts.
This theme comes through strongly at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre, where director Edwin Sherin has adapted and updated the 1881 Norwegian script, transposing it to an island off the coast of Maine in 1981.
Although leaping forward in time is a bold move that succeeds on many levels, the script's stilted language often sounds stuck in the past.
A controversial and even reviled play when it was new, Ghosts focuses on an aristocratic widow named Mrs. Helen Alving (Jane Alexander), whose artist son Oswald (Alexander Pascal) returns home suffering from a life-threatening disease. Though unnamed, the disease Ibsen intended was syphilis; Oswald unknowingly inherited this from his late father, whose dissolute ways Mrs. Alving scrupulously concealed - a decision with tragic repercussions.
In Sherin's adaptation, the disease is AIDS, as yet unnamed in 1981. Turning a congenital disease into congenital behavior - "Over the years I've had many sexual partners ... and we were all into drugs," Oswald admits to his mother - is one of Sherin's most interesting choices.
Equally intriguing is the casting of black actors in the roles of Strand (native Baltimorean Andre De Shields), a laborer, and his daughter Gina (Noel True), Mrs. Alving's servant. Like substituting AIDS for syphilis, replacing Ibsen's class struggle with America's race struggle enhances the immediacy of the issues.
And yet, in some cases the updating accentuates the play's creakier, melodramatic elements, which include alcoholism, fire, incest and particularly the almost laughably obdurate nature of the Alvings' self-righteous minister, Rev. Manders.
Ted van Griethuysen plays Manders with so little humanity, it's impossible to believe there was ever a spark between him and Mrs. Alving, portrayed by Alexander as a dispirited woman who has attempted to compensate for her repressed emotional life by becoming a free thinker.
On stage together- as they are throughout most of the first act - van Griethuysen's rigid Manders and Alexander's chilly Mrs. Alving never establish a connection. Perhaps not surprisingly, their dialogue is the play's most forced.
Alexander's inability to make this language sound natural is especially telling since the adaptation is the work of her real-life husband, director Sherin. And while her first extended scene with Pascal's Oswald is the evening's most touching, by the second act, when dire circumstances should bring them even closer, Alexander at times seems peculiarly distant.
There's even an instance in which a subliminal modern reference detracts from the action. When Manders tells Mrs. Alving that Oswald's immense, graphic paintings of nudes are obscene and vulgar, suddenly we're lifted out of the play and plopped squarely into Alexander's 1993-1997 term as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, during which she frequently found herself defending art against tirades from right-wing reactionaries.
But while the production does nothing to flesh out the play's one-dimensional supporting characters (a flaw that hampers the servant Gina as well as Manders), one secondary role has gained new luster. Sherin and De Shields have turned the laborer, Strand (whom Ibsen called Engstrand), into a fascinatingly complex character. Exuding both cunning and ingratiating charm, De Shields' Strand has also been living with a lie, but he has made peace with duplicity. Ironically, although Strand is lame, he's the only character not crippled by illusions and the immense effort it takes to maintain them.
Set designer Walt Spangler locates the action in a stunning, richly appointed glass-walled home, set against a backdrop of craggy rocks and threatening seas, magnificently lighted by Tyler Micoleau.
In the end, even Sherin's more effective innovations do not adequately revitalize Ibsen's text. Instead of reaching a moving climax, the production peters out, and in place of an urgent drama, the result feels like an uncomfortable cross between a Greek tragedy and a soap opera.