|Joseph Ziegler and Nancy Palk in Ghosts|
Reviewed by James Karas
Henrik Ibsen was not interested in small themes or plots for his plays. He examined large, really large, issues on a grand scale. His play Ghosts, now playing at the Young Centre in a fine production by Soulpepper, examines the social, moral and religious order of Norwegian, indeed, European society with an unflinching eye.
The play is ostensibly about the Alvings, a well-off Norwegian family living on a large country estate. A children’s home has just been completed in memory of the late paterfamilias Captain Alving and his widow Helene (Nancy Palk) and their son Oswald (Gregory Prest) are preparing for the grand opening. Pastor Manders (Joseph Ziegler), who is responsible for the construction of the home, is also there for the grand occasion.
Jacob Engstrand (Diego Matamoros), a local carpenter, wants to build a home for sailors and he pretends to be a reformed Christian. His daughter Regine (Michelle Monteith), an astute young lady, works for Mrs. Alving. She is attracted to Oswald.
That is the apparent world order surrounding this family. Social responsibility, family values and religion are the pillars of this society.
Ibsen soon starts showing the rot underneath these pillars, the ghosts from the past that will come to haunt the family and the social order. Captain Alving was a philanderer and an alcoholic. He fathered Regine with a servant and paid Engstrand to marry the servant and pretend the child was his. Mrs. Alving was forced into an unhappy marriage. She was in love with the handsome Pastor Manders and tried to run away with him He preferred the appearance of morality and sent her back. Oswald is suffering from syphilis, a disease he inherited from his father. Appearance and reality are not the same.
I speak of the grandness of themes of Ghosts to stress that although it is a great play it can be heavy-going stuff on stage and indeed it can be crushingly boring. Director Morris Panych has found a way of dealing with the play that makes it enjoyable without detracting from its incisiveness and dramatic value. He approaches it with a light touch, good pacing and very few melodramatic touches. He takes a Victorian drawing room and gives it a make-over without reducing its beauty.
Nancy Palk as Mrs. Alving is an attractive, classy, upper-class woman. She can relate her past without being melodramatic and therefore give a credible portrayal. Ziegler’s Pastor Manders is judgmental and has done some dumb things but he is human rather than a patriarchal bigot from the Old Testament.
Diego Matamoros’s Engstrand is a greedy, manipulating and comical character while his daughter has some of his traits without his crudeness. Matamoros shuffles his feet across the stage, usually drunk, and does an excellent job as the selfish and amoral carpenter. Monteith is the perfect servant; smart, deferential and able to take care of herself.
The most melodramatic character is Oswald who is going blind from the worsening effects of syphilis but even he is not overdone by Prest.
The set by Ken MacDonald is sparse and appropriate; large windows at the back so we can see when the children’s home is on fire and furniture to indicate comfort and perhaps money.
Ghosts premiered in 1881 in a moral world that is very different from ours. The social, moral and religious orders presented by Ibsen have changed dramatically since then and it is perhaps for that reason that his play can be heavy-going. Panych, by adapting the play and directing it, has treated us to some great drama and a good night at the theatre.
Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Morris Panych, opened on October 14 and will run until November 18, 2011 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. 416 866-8666. www.soulpepper.ca