Suzanne Bouchard galvanizes as a thwarted mother in the Seattle staging of the 19th-century drama.
The Norwegian house of Alving, like the ancient Greek house of Atreus, is not a cheery abode.
In ArtsWest’s new production of Henrik Ibsen’s vertiginous psychological drama “Ghosts,” the audience is entombed along with Helene Alving (Suzanne Bouchard) and her artist son Oswald (John Coons) in an austere house banked with tall windows letting in only thick, gray light.
There is nothing cozy and bright about Shawn Ketchum Johnson’s imposing, wraparound setting, lit in Gothic fashion by Alyssa Milione. But more chilling are the delusions, secrets and phantoms in residence. Can they be banished by a mother’s pent-up love for her only child?
by Henrik Ibsen. Through Oct. 23, ArtsWest, 4711 California Ave. S.W., Seattle; $17-$37.50 (206-938-0339 or artswest.org).
Using noted British director Richard Eyre’s streamlined adaptation of the 1881 Ibsen text, director Mathew Wright revives this unsparing work initially rejected by numerous theaters in Scandinavia, banned from public performance in England, and savaged by critics for its candor about (whew) class rigidity, adultery, religious hypocrisy, incest, assisted suicide and sexually transmitted disease.
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The particulars of “Ghosts” are not so shocking today, when modern medicine and divorce are readily available correctives. Nor do all the actors here match the concentrated intensity of Bouchard’s galvanizing performance. But with few professional Seattle theaters mounting 19th-century classics these days, this is a rare chance to be acquainted with a powerful theatrical touchstone, a keen study in the destructive power of false values and moral cowardice.
Though encased in the bulky satin armor of proper Victorian dress, Bouchard’s Mrs. Alving is a handsome, assertive widow liberated from decades spent in a self- and socially imposed reserve. She has just unloaded the wealth inherited from her unfaithful, scandalous husband by footing the bill for a new community orphanage. How symbolic, given that Helene is also eagerly anticipating the return home of the bohemian Oswald – whom she effectively “orphaned” by sending away to school at age 7, in an attempt to spare him the sins of his reprobate father.
Helene is also at last talking truth to her adviser (and former beau) Pastor Manders (a suitably anxious Noah Racey), whose self-serving, stiff-necked piety helped to distort her life, and blinker his own.
If rejuvenation were possible, Bouchard’s strikingly intelligent Helene would surely seize it. But Oswald’s initially happy homecoming cannot be sustained in this ghost house, where the past has an iron grip on the present.
Grim? Yes. But engrossing also, as a study in the poisonous power of Victorian morality, and as a portrait of an unfulfilled mother in a strictly misogynist culture. (Ibsen wrote “Ghosts” soon after his better known, proto-feminist play, “A Doll’s House,” caused a stir.) But if one unpeels the play further, you can get to a condition that’s poisonous in any era: the toxicity of living a lie.
A Seattle native best known as a Broadway song-and-dance man, Racey gives a well-wrought, squirm-worthy account of Pastor Manders, who is partly culpable for the Alving woes. Sophia Franzella doesn’t fully project (vocally or temperamentally) herself into the role of Mrs. Alving’s dutiful but flirtatious young servant, Regina.
More of an issue is Coons’ blandness in his early scenes. Oswald is a tragic figure, yet also a free-spirited bohemian painter who has shrugged off Nordic puritanism during his sojourn in Paris. His chemistry with Regina should register more heat. And it isn’t until the play’s final, searing scene that his complex feelings toward his mother catch fire.
There is no such delay with Bouchard, who commands the stage with her character’s pride, determination, regret, anger and, finally, her loss.