Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 12, 2019

REVIEW: Williamstown Theatre Festival, Ghosts

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA
through August 18, 2019
by Stuart W. Gamble

Photo by Jeremy Daniel
For those expecting a spooky, window-rattling, bump in the night type thriller, you best re-assess your expectations. Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts” was penned in 1881, at a time when, as translator Paul Walsh states: “ the 1880s in Norway, they were on the brink of modernity.” In Walsh’s new translation, collaboratively developed with WTF Artistic Director Aileen Lambert states in the program, “I aim to translate the language for the actors first a way that is contemporary without being modernized.”

Ibsen’s drama (which verges close, but not too close, on melodrama), is set on the estate of Mrs. Helene Alving, near a fjord in Western Norway. The inciting action is the arrival of Oswald, Mrs. Alving’s son, an artist, who has come from his Bohemian life in Paris when the unveiling of an orphanage dedicated to his late father. Pastor Manders is also in attendance, to (mostly) lecture to Mrs. Alving on the morality of 19th century Norway. Rounding out the story are Jakob Engstrand, a rather shady character, and his daughter Regina, the Alving’s housemaid. Many plot twists and revelations ensue including the titular ghosts, which Mrs. Alving says are “opinions, beliefs, and lies are specters we see again as ghosts.”

Indeed the solemn, dread-filled world of “Ghosts” is effectively underscored by David Coulter’s onstage eerie zither music. The wisps of steam rising from the fjord are subtly created by scenic designer Dane Laffrey. The slanted roof covered with scrub pine and the restrictive, Victorian era suits and dresses are also the creation of Laffrey.

The expert performances by the small cast are what give “Ghosts” its nuances and humanity. The biggest draw to this play is, undoubtedly, the appearance of Oscar-nominated actress Uma Thurman. Thurman’s performance as Mrs. Alving is at once witty and intense. Hers is a difficult role that requires a balance of her internal rage and compassion. The actress’ stills present the subtlest stage performances that this writer has seen. On par with Thurman is Tom Pecinka as Oswald. His transformation from Devil-may-care artist to suffering son is truly a grand piece of acting. While Catherine Combs seems a little bit young in the role of Regina, she holds her own. Bernard White as the hypocritical Pastor Manders manages to convey sincerity without making him a caricature. Thom Sesma’s opportunistic Jakob Engstrand is both comical and reproachable.

Think of “Ghosts” as a stage-bound version of an Ingmar Bergman film, deeply psychological and verbose, with a bit of the storyline of Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” along with the sardonic social commentary of contemporary news programs. The result is the brilliance of the father of dramatic modernism, Henrik Ibsen.