A little over halfway through the first act of Seattle Rep’s production of “Ghosts,” running through May 1, I started to wonder what, exactly, we were all laughing about. Throughout the beginning of the play, Pastor Manders (played with a steady hand by Emmy Award-winning and Academy Award-nominated actor David Strathairn) chastises the widowed Mrs. Helena Alving for how she’s raised her son, Oswald. Manders places value in a so-called “traditional” family home and gender roles and pushes back against the more progressive outlooks of Alving and her son, blaming the tainting of their morals on things like books he hasn’t even taken the time to read.
It’s almost too easy to laugh at Manders, whose views, if tweeted, might be cause for cancellation based on the blatant misogyny behind the thoughts. “What right have we to be happy,” he questions at one point, eliciting laughter at the fact that this man can be so behind the times as to say to Alving’s face that she should prioritize his idea of traditional values over her own happiness. But what wound up giving me pause is that laughing at his views lets the pain of his words off the hook.
Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts,” in a new translation from Paul Walsh, takes place leading up to the 10th anniversary of the death of Mrs. Alving’s husband. That anniversary is also to be marked by the dedication of an orphanage in Mr. Alving’s memory. During the play, decades-old secrets seep out in the Alving household that cast shadows on Mr. Alving’s legacy and call into question what harm came from keeping his secrets and what additional pain can come from revealing the truth now.
At the center of this conflict is Mrs. Alving (played skillfully by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) who kept secret her husband’s transgressions while making the painful decision to send her son away at a young age in the hopes of distancing him from his father and allowing the apple to fall a bit farther from the proverbial tree. With her son now home from living as an artist in Paris, her parenting is reprimanded by Pastor Manders, a man whose dedication to religion is such that he convinced Mrs. Alving not to insure her orphanage because it may look like she doesn’t believe in divine providence protecting the establishment.
As with much that comes from the mouth of Manders, these thoughts come off as laughable barbs, glancing over the audience as if another tweet about how the divine can do more than masks or vaccines, deserving of little more than an eye roll and a scroll.
But there was a telling moment in the blocking from director Carey Perloff (who also directed the Uma Thurman-starring run of this translation at Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2019). At one moment, Pastor Manders, ever on his high horse, says to Mrs. Alving, “You have failed as a mother, and I feel it’s my duty to tell you so.” The line got a laugh — I mean, the arrogance of that statement. But in that moment, Mastrantonio’s Alving was facing upstage and Strathairn’s Manders was facing the audience. All eyes on him as if welcoming the audience to overlook the now weeping Mrs. Alving in favor of laughing at the man throwing the punches that caused her pain.
That moment manages to be a microcosm of Ibsen’s play, the language of which Walsh adjusted to feel more natural to an American audience. As the laughs started to hit a bit surreally, I had to wonder if we’re too accustomed to laughing off bigotry over processing the seriousness of the pain it’s inflicting. This play serves as a constant reminder of the trauma women are put through to protect the legacies of men around them, maintaining their secrets to protect their image, and the fact that the pain they suffer as a result often goes ignored. Thankfully, by the second act, some of the laughs turned to grimacing “oohs” as verbal punches started to land.
I wish I could sit here and say I liked “Ghosts” more. The design elements combine to create a nice, eerie atmosphere. Robert Wierzel’s stark side lighting throws long shadows on the stage and casts parts of actors’ faces in darkness (perhaps a nod to the fact that they all have a secret to hide). Victoria Deiorio’s sound design alongside David Coulter’s original music, which he performs live on a variety of percussion instruments and a glass harp, elicit ghostly tones as he slowly circles his fingers around the rims of glasses of water. The issue for me wound up being the depth of this play never quite lands.
“I am trying to keep alive all the contradictions and dialectics the play contains — today we like to know which side ‘virtue’ resides on, but Ibsen knew that morality is messy and that ‘truth’ is a multi-faceted weapon,” Perloff said in an interview featured in the program book. “So I want the production to wrestle with the fierce collisions and contradictions of the text, and also the sorrow of never really being able to know another human being, let alone ourselves.”
But the play never truly feels messy, and the collisions hit like bumper cars. I truly believe that what Seattle Rep has put on stage here is well produced, if a bit rote. It’s beautiful, well acted and aptly directed, but it lacks a spontaneity. Mastrantonio has many moments of fiery rebuttals throughout the play, but as revelations roll in during the second act and characters are forced to deal with the consequences of the truth, her fire seems met with a shrug. Or, too often, an oddly timed laugh.