The blackbox at Redtwist is intentionally underlit. In Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, five characters move through a house still dominated by a deceased master. But it’s not just him who drags them down, says his widow, Helen Alving (Jacqueline Grandt). It’s a whole corrupt concept of morality and all of their complicity in it. Rightly called the father of modern drama, Ibsen was fixated on the problem of what we owe ourselves versus what we owe social stability. Although Ghosts was his most controversial play within his lifetime, it was controversial for reasons that seem ridiculous today, in comparison to other of his works which still make audiences question themselves. The new adaptation by director Erin Murray refocuses attention on some of Ghosts’ deeper questions in a tight one-act.
Hushed-Up Things Have a Way of Coming Back
Mrs. Alving has used the money from her husband’s estate to endow an orphanage which is to open soon. Assisting her is Pastor Manders (James Sparling), who convinced her long ago to stay with the late captain even though it was he, the pastor, Mrs. Alving loved. Despite some skullduggery by the carpenter, Engstrand (Lionel Gentle), who is also the father of the maid, Regina (Sophie Hoyt), things seem to be going well. Mrs. Alving’s son, Oswald (Devon Nimerfroh) has even returned from abroad for an open-ended stay with his doting mother. But Mrs. Alving’s hope to bury her husband’s misdeeds forever, along with her own role in enabling them, is frustrated by Oswald’s revelation that he has inherited something wholly unwelcome from his father’s dalliances, and by revelations regarding the appropriateness of his relationship with Regina.
Although not all of Ibsen’s plays were naturalistic, he is one of the writers to whom we most owe that style, and it’s on full display here. The audience is in close quarters with the actors, who stride across the stage on loud character shoes beneath canned lights. Gentle’s Engstrand has a raspy, devilish laugh, in contrast to Regina’s studied propriety. The old cynic delights in tearing down anybody who dares to have ideals, unless he can exploit them. Pastor Manders was one of the authority figures Ibsen treated the most contemptuously, and Sparling earns a lot of laughs by capturing the melodrama-accented humor of the role. Manders is pompous, easily manipulated, and wholly out of his depth. The downside to this approach, in this writer’s view, is that it’s hard to see why Mrs. Alving ever liked him in the first place. Grandt and Nimerfroh are able interpreters of their roles, but they really shine when they’re with each other. Nimerfroh handles Oswald’s moodswings with enough motivation that their true nature is only apparent if you know to look for it. Grandt’s Mrs. Alving is a woman of incisive wit and humor who has learned to whether life’s blows and deal her own back, but her son is a major blindspot for her.
Redtwist Theatre Seizes the Moment
Although the style of staging keeps with the era of the show’s origin, recent events have made a lot of its lines resonate quite differently. Murray’s script spells out some of the injustices that were glossed over or only briefly acknowledged in the original, and making Regina a more prominent character is a refreshing choice. But most of the reduced script is just Mrs. Alving getting yelled at by other characters, so getting yelled at by one more did not, in this reviewer’s experience, land quite how it seemed intended to. Murray’s edits also removed Mrs. Alving’s most extreme opinions, making Pastor Manders even more of a buffoon for being scandalized by her. The dialogue is savvy, though, and it went a long way toward bringing out the power in Ibsen’s vision. The term “complicity” is used a lot now, so the play’s questions about it seem more immediate. A good Ibsen production is always worth a look, and this revival of a play from 1881 proves just how long ideas do linger.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Lionel Gentle (Jacob Engstrand), Jacqueline Grandt (Helen Alving), Sophie Hoyt (Regina Engstrand), Devon Nimerfroh (Oswald Alving), James Sparling (Pastor Manders)
Erin Murray (Director), Max Colvill (Assistant Director), Elaena Hoekstra (Stage Manager), Sunniva Holmlund (Assistant Stage Manager), Kaitlin Taylor (Production Manager), Julia Skeggs (Casting Director), Daniel Fiddler (Technical Director), Lauren Nichols (Scenic Designer), Adrienne Miikelle (Lighting Designer), Eric Backus (Sound Designer), Stephanie Cluggish (Costume Designer), Christian Kurka (Props Designer), Natalie Santoro (Scenic Charge), Kate Swenson & Jerrell L. Henderson (Dramaturgs), Ari Craven (Graphic Designer), Jan Ellen Graves (Marketing Consultant), E. Malcolm Martinez (Box Office Manager), Charles Bonilla & Johnny Garcia (Box Office Associates), Brennan T. Jones & Michael Colucci (Producers)
1044 W Bryn Mawr
Through December 10
Thu, Fri, Sat at 7:30pm
Sun at 3pm
(there is no performance on Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, November 22)
Running time is one hundred minutes with no intermission.
About the Author: Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis has lived in Chicago since 2014 when he started writing articles about theatre, opera, and dance for a number of review websites. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of modernist dramatic literature and criticism. While there, he interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham developing concepts for new dance pieces. His professional work includes developing the original jazz performance piece The Blues Ain’t a Color with Denise LaGrassa, which played at Theater Wit. He has also written promotional materials for theatre companies including Silk Road Rising.
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