|L to R Ken Bolden as Rev.Manders, Virginia Wall Gruenert as Helen Alving and Weston Blakesley as Jacob Engstrand in Off the Wall Theater's production of "Ghosts"|
With a mission of staging provocative, daring theater not normally produced in the Pittsburgh region, Off the Wall Theater in Carnegie set sail into terra cognito this weekend with a new production of a classic.
Now a venerable chestnut of dramatic literature, Henrik Ibsen’s "Ghosts," was considered so scandalous when it was first performed in the prudish Victorian era it earned a spot on the censor’s list.
Written in 1881, Ghosts takes on the orthodoxy of the day, throwing a new light on convention, old ideas, social constraints and the morality and hypocrisy of the day and introduced unsavory elements such as profligacy and sexually transmitted disease, hitherto considered verboten, into his drama set in the Norwegian hinterland.
I remember reading "Ghosts" while attending college in Pittsburgh during a rather bleak winter. The combination of the weather and the mood of the play produced a sort of melancholic angst. Subsequent attendance of plays by Ibsen and fellow Scandinavian playwrights such as Strindberg reinforced the impression that the long, gray winters experienced by Northern Europeans had a marked effect on their writings. Slow moving, introspective, guilt-ridden, pensive and glum scenarios seemed to be the norm.
How exhilarating, then, to encounter a breath of fresh air with the staging now taking place at Off the Wall. Oh yes, the same tragic plot unfolds, but thanks to director Simm Landres’ brisk pacing, the entire 90-minute long experience sans intermission becomes a fascinating look at how orthodox conventions, social strictures, lies and putting on the false front they require can disable lives and produce deep-felt unhappiness. It’s a theme just as relevant today as it was at the turn of the 19th century.
Rather than simply grim and dour, the play has an enlivening spirit that occasionally takes it away from its darker moments, and Landres even finds nuggets of humor that elevate and enervate the narrative even more.
Knowing beforehand the inevitable outcome that will come crashing down on the unhappy family as if some easily offended Fury was taking final revenge, I had wished I could have experienced the work with untried eyes. Even so, I found the entire drama fascinating and sat riveted in my seat.
The production is hugely sustained by its talented cast, headed by Virginia Wall Gruenert (Mrs. Alving), whose character is doomed to have lived her life hiding the debauchery of her deceased husband from her son and community. Recently emancipated to the point of being able to reveal his many indiscretions to her minister, her life-long imposturing comes back to haunt her when her son arrives home after pursuing an artistic career in Paris.
Wall Gruenert does a magnificent job fluidly transitioning from woman recently emotionally liberated and confident to one that is subsequently devastated by learning the tragic fate of her ailing bohemian son. The emotional nuances she coveys as a continuum along the course of the play is theatrical artistry sheer and simple.
As the prudish Reverend Manders, Ken Bolden creates a character focused more on a propriety, respectability and decorum that comes at the expense of compassionate humanity. The avoidance of scandal seems to be one of his major concerns.
Capitalizing on the minister’s gullibility and sanctimonious insecurities, Weston Blakesley as Jacob Engstrand is a man acutely adept at manipulating the circumstance to fit his needs and is blessed with a way with words that’s a comic joy to behold. As his "daughter," Regina, Sarah Silk eventually reveals some of his psychopathic tendencies as she abruptly transitions from naïve and hopeful lover to distraught egomaniac consumed by her own self-interests.
The most dramatic moments in "Ghosts" come at the end of the play when Wall Gruenert and Shaun Cameron Hall as her son, Oswald, team up for an emotionally-charged climax that is painful to watch and difficult to forget. The angst and horribly intertwined fate of both mother and son bristle with theatrical electricity that’s palpably convincing.
The remarkable set by scenic designer, Rich Preffer is both a realistic depiction of a Scandinavian parlor at the end of the 19th century and an abstract, claustrophobic representation of the emotional constraints suggested by Iben’s theme. He manages this by enclosing the set in a cage-like devise suspended over the top of the stage that’s a contrast to the lofty mountainous landscape seen out the parlor window and continuing on both sides of the set.
For a theater company that insists on bringing daring new works to its stage, Off the Wall did a superb job on its original treatment of a revered classic.
"Ghosts" is at the Off the Wall Theater in Carnegie through March 14. For tickets, phone 1-888-71-TICKETS.