Ibsen’s Ghosts, with Uma Thurman

secrets and lies

The Williamstown Theatre Festival in western Massachusetts has been producing great theater since 1955. It is a resident summer theater on the campus of Williams College. Actors who have performed there over the years have included Sigourney Weaver, Christopher Walken, Nathan Lane, Richard Chamberlain, Kate Burton, Olympia Dukakis, Paul Giamatti, Bradley Cooper, Calista Flockhart, Matthew Broderick, Blythe Danner, and her daughter, Gwyneth Paltrow.

Yet I had never been there. Time to change that. I discover that Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts would be performed the week the family was already in the Berkshires. This is a new translation by Paul Walsh, though I am totally unfamiliar with the play. Uma Thurman, who I think of as a film actor, plays the pivotal Mrs. Alving. Carey Perloff is the director.

The bad news is that there are very few seats left, except in the second balcony. The good news is that the tickets are somewhat cheaper, $60 each, rather than $75. My wife and I settled on a Wednesday matinee.

What IS this play? Ghosts was “written in 1881 and first staged in 1882 in Chicago, IL, in a production by a Danish company on tour. Like many of Ibsen’s plays, Ghosts is a scathing commentary on 19th-century morality. Because of its subject matter, which includes religion, venereal disease, incest, and euthanasia, it immediately generated strong controversy and negative criticism.

“Since then the play has fared better, and is considered a ‘great play’ that historically holds a position of ‘immense importance’. Theater critic Maurice Valency wrote in 1963, ‘…Regular tragedy dealt mainly with the unhappy consequences of breaking the moral code. Ghosts, on the contrary, deals with the consequences of not breaking it.'”

Like many plays, it’s the secrets and lies that drive the plot. Helen Alving had sent her son Oswald away to protect him from her now-late philandering husband. Now her adult son has returned. As is my wont, I particularly enjoyed the dueling theologies of the pastor and many of the others, such as the carpenter who kept a confidence that messed up the church registry.

The New York Times called the production “sumptuous”, and I would agree. The actors – Catherine Combs (Regina), Tom Pecinka (Oswald Alving), Thom Sesma (Jakob Engstrand, the carpenter), Uma Thurman, Bernard White (Pastor Manders) – were very accomplished. The one thing that was a distraction was that the large thatched roof sometimes obscured the characters when they were upstage.

On the other hand, I loved the live score by David Coulter, which included water glasses, percussion and all sorts of moody instrumentation. I’ll have to return to the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the next year or two.