The actor David Strathairn, known to many for his work in John Sayles films and for his Oscar-nominated performance as Edward R. Murrow in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” divides his time between screen and stage. This month, he’s onstage at Seattle Rep, playing Pastor Manders in the classic Henrik Ibsen drama about family secrets, “Ghosts,” newly translated from Ibsen’s original Norwegian by Paul Walsh and directed by Carey Perloff.
Strathairn previously appeared at the Rep, which he calls “one of the great regional theaters in the country,” back in 1984 in Herb Gardner’s “I’m Not Rappaport,” and he’s happy to finally be back. (Note to Sayles fans: Strathairn is reunited in this production with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, with whom he shared a screen in Sayles’ 1999 drama “Limbo,” and who is playing central character Helena Alving.) In a telephone conversation before rehearsal Tuesday, Strathairn talked about his work in the production.
Do you have a history with this play? How would you characterize the new translation?
I’d done [Ibsen’s] “A Doll’s House,” but never “Ghosts.” But I know the play. I think in Paul Walsh’s hands — he’s a brilliant translator and adapter — it’s easier on the ear. There’s not really a contemporary feeling to the language, but I’ve read several other translations, and this one is very accessible in its wording. I think it enhances the play, in a very incisive way, and yet it still preserves Ibsen’s intentions, completely. … Language is such a mutable thing — how we hear it and what it means to us and what a certain phrase can mean — and I think Paul’s just done a brilliant job.
He’s been [in rehearsal] with us and it’s been really exciting. It feels like a very organic process: We’re finding the play but the play is finding us. Paul’s been right there, fine-tuning and rearranging and maybe substituting at some times. It’s a live thing, an actual live organism.
What’s unique about performing Ibsen?
Well, he was a master playwright. He was very prescient in his understanding of human psychology. This play should never be dismissed as being something written in the past, some old classical dusty thing on the shelf of dramatic literature, because things that happened in this play are present and applicable to I’d say almost any time in human history. … He was a radical playwright.
As an actor who moves between theater and film, how do you adjust your technique for a stage production?
Of course, you do have to be aware of the space of the theater and projection. Theater is an arena of words, and that kind of storytelling is dependent upon the audience hearing the story. Film has all the luxury of going in quiet, you can be as intimate as you want, you can whisper and the audience can still hear it and get in close. That’s the main difference. But as far as my preparation, I go into the character pretty much the same way, regardless, of film or television. The only difference is that, in theater, you get the luxury of spending two or three weeks excavating and interrogating the play and building it with a group of people.
“Ghosts” is running for a month; do you anticipate that your performance will evolve over the course of the run?
Theater’s an organic thing, it’s alive only once a night, and the next night, it’s essentially a brand-new thing because it’s a brand-new audience. It has very subtle growth. You become much more familiar with the music of it, and some things change very subtly without you even knowing it. It’s like musicians playing in a quintet and you hear the music: the more you hear it, the more you hear it. I’ve never been in a run that’s longer than three or four months; I can’t imagine what it would be like to do something for two years. When you do a run this short, it feels like you’re getting out on the ice every night.
Tell me about your solo performance piece, “The Lesson of Jan Karski.” (Strathairn has performed this play, about a real-life hero of the Polish resistance during World War II, at multiple locations in recent years.)
That piece was developed at Georgetown University, almost seven years ago, to celebrate this man who was a professor at Georgetown. For 35 years, his life was kind of held in silence — he would not speak about his experiences during the war. [The one-man play] is a story about him, a story about that journey, a story about speaking the truth. … It was filmed at the beginning of COVID, and it’s trying to find its way around to see if it can get accepted at film festivals. I’m hoping to perform it again, maybe in Washington, D.C., and maybe in New York in the fall. Nothing quite definitive yet.